Even by the standards of the late 60s and early 70s, an era where acts would generally be expected to deliver a new studio album at least as regularly as one every twelve months, Neil Young was terrifyingly prolific. Between 1966 and 1976 he released seven solo studio albums, a sound track, a collaboration with fellow Buffalo Springfield alumni Stephen Stills, a live album of previously unreleased material, another four full albums which didn’t see a full release at the time, a studio album as one quarter of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and a further live album with CSNY. Oh, and contributions to the three Buffalo Springfield albums, as well as loads of various offcuts, some of which resurfaced on Decade, a triple LP / two CD summation of Neil Young’s career.
Neil Young has always had a reputation for keeping a tight hold of the quality control of his output. From albums being effectively removed from the market because he’s personally not fond of them (it took years for On the Beach to receive an official CD release, and although Time Fades Away is apparently now available, you can only get it as part of a box set), to him insisting that favoured albums get re-released at the same time as his best seller (he apparently refused to let a CD version of Harvest be released, unless Tonight’s the Night received the same treatment), to the long delayed and ever expanding Archives project, with its boatload of downloadable content, to his frequent criticisms of the CD and MP3 formats, to his championing of blu-ray and launching his own Pono digital music player and online store, and getting his rock star mates to endorse it. It is perhaps no surprise then that Decade was curated by Young himself, and set the standard for career-spanning retrospective box sets long before every act that sneezed in a recording studio had them.
Starting with material which pre-dates his years in Buffalo Springfield, Decade is as accurate a reflection of the first ten years of Neil Young’s career as he is ever likely to allow to be released. Some albums are well represented, such as 1969’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and 1972’s mega-selling Harvest, while others are given scant recognition, or glossed over entirely (although Young does at least admit in the liner notes that he specifically chose not to include anything from Time Fades Away). There are pop songs in the shape of Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr Soul”, protest songs like CSNY’s “Ohio”, blistering electric guitar epics of “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Like a Hurricane”s ilk, stripped back acoustic country folk like “Heart of Gold” and “Star of Bethlehem”, and some of the most heart-rendingly sorrowful song writing you’re ever likely to hear by way of “Tonight’s the Night” and “Cortez the Killer”.
As a listening experience, Decade is an expansive, if selective overview of one of the most varied careers in rock and roll. Arguably Young is in the top tier of 70s North American singer songwriters, along with fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman, all of whom followed in the wake of Bob Dylan’s startling career throughout the 60s, and who himself was enjoying a career renaissance in the mid 70s. It is fitting then that Decade does its job as well as it does, despite my personal frustration that it isn’t called ‘Decade and a Third’, and compiled in 1980, so it could close with material from my personal favourite of Neil Young’s output, Rust Never Sleeps, the perfect example of Neil Young’s contrasting soft acoustic and hard rocking approaches, and home to some of the best music of his career. This is a minor niggle though, as Decade performs admirably well as a taster of Neil Young’s work during the most celebrated decade of his career, and closes with the oddly prophetic “Long May You Run”, ironically taken from his collaboration with Stephen Stills, one of the least satisfying albums he has put his name to, yet it ends Decade on a suitably upbeat and hopeful note.
Decade should be celebrated, not just for the music it contains, but the standards it set for compilations going forward. While it was curated by Neil Young himself, and he certainly takes a few liberties by ignoring whole albums, it includes everything from the big hits that the uninitiated would be looking for, to rarities to tempt established fans. By balancing the needs of those unfamiliar with his work, with those who already owned the majority of his albums, Neil Young found the sweet-spot with Decade, and it remains one of the key releases of his career.