To be honest, I was expecting a brand new studio album. The release dates for “Sugar Mountain” and the behemoth of “Archives” have been pinging around the calendar for so long now, it seemed reasonable to suspect that Neil Young had been distracted from his librarian duties once again by a sudden urgent rush of new music: a follow-up to “Looking For A Leader” and its Obama reference in time for the election, perhaps?

To be honest, I was expecting a brand new studio album. The release dates for “Sugar Mountain” and the behemoth of “Archives” have been pinging around the calendar for so long now, it seemed reasonable to suspect that Neil Young had been distracted from his librarian duties once again by a sudden urgent rush of new music: a follow-up to “Looking For A Leader” and its Obama reference in time for the election, perhaps?



But then at the very end of last week, we discovered that “Sugar Mountain”, a live set from the dawn of Young’s solo career, had an emphatic spot on the schedule, and even a tracklisting. And this Tuesday, the CD actually turned up – not a Blu-Ray disc, I should point out, and, amazingly, the first Neil release of this seemingly hectic year.

Anyway: details. As you probably know, “Sugar Mountain” finds Young playing one of his very first solo shows after the demise of Buffalo Springfield; a gig at the Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, Michigan, some kind of “Episcopal facility” that was part of the University Of Michigan.

It’s November 9, 1968, then, and we’re presented with Neil Young and an acoustic guitar, and a bunch of songs that are, or soon enough will be, part of the canon: “Mr Soul”, “Expecting To Fly”, “The Loner”, “Birds”, “I’ve Been Waiting For You”, “The Old Laughing Lady”, “Broken Arrow”. When they look back these many decades, it’s a habit of veteran rock stars to talk about how they never had much of a plan, that they never expected their career to last much more than a couple of years, that they never composed for posterity and so on.

But can anyone have ever begun a solo career with such an extraordinarily rich setlist? Young had history and fame already, of course. Nevertheless, if Neil Young had played precisely this setlist as the acoustic part of his spring 2008 tour, it wouldn’t have seemed too incongruous.

He did play a few of these tracks on that jaunt: “Mr Soul”, “The Loner”, for certain. But how the feel, the atmosphere, the frail intimacy have endured is most striking. Back in the spring, plenty of critics zeroed in on “Ambulance Blues” as a landmark of both the shows and of Young’s career. Here on “Sugar Mountain”, we’re reminded how the impressionistic, unravelling “Last Trip To Tulsa”, and maybe even “Broken Arrow”, were sort of precursors to that masterpiece; fragmented spiels held together by an almost mystical purpose and momentum.

The big difference, though, is how goofy Young sounded back then. Even by the time of that “Live At Massey Hall” show, though still rambling, Young had somewhat refined his spiel. On the “Sugar Mountain” tape, however, he chats gauchely and lengthily, with a more pronounced Canadian accent than we’re perhaps used to, and at a higher pitch that’s much closer to his singing voice.

The lengthiness of these anecdotes is especially striking. Ten of the 23 tracks are spoken-word: a useful bit of CD indexing, since you might want to start skipping these intros – some of them three or four minutes long – after a few listens.

For a start, though, they’re warm, revealing and funny. Forty years ago, most of Young’s preoccupations are already well-established: “I’m an old car nut,” he announces in “Songwriting Rap”, before going on to claim that “Mr Soul” was written in five minutes, and unveiling a vaguely cosmic, distinctly familiar take on his art: “Things come to you, and you’re a radio station. . . It comes to you. . . You’re a microphone.”

Before “The Loner” (“A song from the new album”), there’s a great anecdote about working in a Toronto bookstore, piling up books while wired on amphetamines. “I never ever have told a lie onstage,” he claims, and follows it up with the sort of full personal disclosure that isn’t exactly typical of his latterday persona.

But I suspect I could sit here all afternoon and transcribe these stories, and I don’t want to spoil all your fun, so I’ve fast-forwarded to the heartstoppingly lovely take on “I’ve Been Waiting For You” instead. Apparently, none of “Sugar Mountain” is due to appear on “Archives”, so God knows what else Young has lined up for that. Januaryish, we’re being told now. Best buy your Blu-Ray players for Christmas, I suppose, unless the format becomes obsolete before the project actually comes to fruition. . .