Neil Young: Multimedia Star

Neil Young is a pain in the ass. A brilliant one, but a pain nonetheless. When the initial volume of his long-promised Archives landed on my desk in the form of 10 Blu-ray discs, my first thought was "Wow." My second thought was "I don't have a Blu-ray player, nor do I want to pay $350 for one." I asked for the regular DVD set instead, which contains most of the same music—spanning 1963–72—but doesn't allow users to scan lyrics, period photos and Young's trove of documentary errata while listening. When the unreleased song "The Ballad of Peggy Grover" caught my ear after only 30 minutes, I knew I'd made a mistake. I wanted to review the extras Young included with the songs, though DVD technology won't let you do that while playing the audio. Drag. I broke down and bought a Blu-ray player.

True, there's a lot of nerve at work here. Who charges $300 for a set of music—much of which is already available—and also demands that listeners perform a technology upgrade? This set is the very definition of a luxury good. Yet as much as the whole project appears overly precious, Young's work earns our indulgence. The solo albums this set draws from—Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Neil Young, After the Gold Rush, Harvest—are all shut-your-mouth classics. Young runs them incomplete and out of sequence—tossing in a new live version here, an unreleased song there—in a bid to make you consider his oeuvre anew, and it works. (Given Young's erratic output in later years, the forthcoming volumes of Archives should prove wilder rides.) In this set, you get three live concerts from the era: one hard-rocking, one acoustic and one brand-new. On the video front, we see rare footage of CSNY tucked within an experimental film by Young. More impressive than the Blu-ray's ability to house all this high-def sound and image is Young's sense of the technology's capacity for artistic presentation. As he produces the next set of Archives, Young will be able to digitally add newfound tracks to -Internet-enabled Blu-ray hard drives, slipping bonus material into the project's multimedia timeline. (A week after volume one's release, Young added a new recording via Blu-ray update.)

If you're satisfied with the albums you already own and want a budget option, you can purchase individual CDs from Young's Web site or download MP3s à la carte from online vendors. These versions cannot be updated and lack the Blu-ray's significant sound upgrade, but, with a little research, you can hear most of the new music. If you have a bigger budget, however, the deluxe set is more than tech-geekery: it's a blissfully immersive way to experience a songwriter's craft, from the drafting board to the concert hall. "He's a feeling arranger, and a changer of the ways he talks," Young once sang in "The Loner." Now it seems like he could have been describing his own archivist soul.