In an interview with Guitar World earlier this year, Neil Young lamented the fact that, in his estimation, music fans “don’t understand the value of sound anymore.” Of late, he’s been doing his small part to combat this development. Exhibit #1 in this regard was 2009’s Archives, Vol. 1 1963-1972, a monstrous, 10-disc DVD/Blu-ray set that traced the first decade of his life in music in exhaustive depth, and with incredible sonic clarity. Young, among the earliest and most strident voices in the argument against digitized sound (though even he likely didn’t envision how far the format would devolve with the introduction of the low-bit-rate mp3 file) saw something like redemption in the Blu-ray platform, with which he presented Archives in awesome 24-bit/192 kHz stereo PCM resolution. So while fans had for decades been listening to Young warhorses like “Down By the River,” “Heart of Gold” and “Cinnamon Girl,” they’d likely never heard them sound quite as alive as they did on Archives.
And yet now, by taking something of a step back to vinyl, Young may have vaulted above and beyond even the sonic excellence offered by the high-def Blu-ray reproductions of his music. As part of the ongoing Archives project, he has issued the four solo albums chronicled on that collection—1969’s Neil Young, the same year’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, 1970’s After the Gold Rush and 1972’s Harvest—as the Neil Young Official Release Series, Discs 1-4 limited edition vinyl box set. All four albums were remastered from the original analog master tapes, by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering. In addition, the grooves were pressed on heavy, 180-gram vinyl at Pallas MFG in Germany, considered to be among the world’s premier pressing plants for top-notch vinyl. And this product is indeed superior: vinyl surfaces are flat and flawless, EQ is incredibly well balanced, and background noise is virtually non-existent.
And while the full package is impressive, not surprisingly, it’s the sound that is the real standout. A few moments in particular that caught my ear—the squeals and squiggles of Young’s fuzz guitar on “I’ve Been Waiting For You” and “The Loner,” both from his ’69 self-titled debut; the textured, dovetailing acoustic interplay between Young and Nils Lofgren on After the Gold Rush’s “Tell Me Why”; the sharp, hard snap of the snare behind Young’s guitar on Harvest’s “Out On the Weekend”—all are rendered with incredible sharpness and presence, and practically jump out of the speakers.
And then there’s the Crazy Horse material: The guitar work on Everybody Knows This is Nowhere classics like “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand” is reproduced in ragged and extraordinarily rich glory, positively dripping with harmonics and overtones. The enhanced separation between Young and Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten’s instruments, meanwhile, exposes new paths and planes in the music: Take notice on “Cinnamon Girl” as Young’s guitar, distorted and dirty but clearly defined, cuts a jagged line through Whitten’s clean, ringing arpeggios—it’s as if you’re hearing the song for the first time.
The brilliant restoration extends to the packaging as well. Each vinyl record is housed in a thick cardstock cover, replete with a painstakingly accurate reproduction of the original album art, down to gatefold sleeves and “hand-written” lyric inserts. The collection is presented in a box designed by Young’s longtime art director, Gary Burden, and just 3,000 sets are being produced in total, with each individually numbered in gold foil stamp.
The four albums are also available individually in 140 gram vinyl versions (as well as standard and 24-karat gold CD configurations), but, much like the Blu-ray format with Archives, the 180-gram Neil Young Official Release Series, Discs 1-4 vinyl box offering is the best—and, in truth, only—way to go for any true Neil fan.