Any project in the works for two decades is bound to generate its fair share of myths and so it is with Neil Young's Archives, a series of multi-disc box sets chronicling Young's history. Originally envisioned in the late '80s as a Decade II, the project quickly mutated into a monster covering every little corner of Neil's career. With its escalation came delays, so many that it sometimes seemed that the project never really existed; it was just a shared fantasy between Neil and his faithful. During that long, long wait, fans held tight to the idea that Archives was a clearinghouse of rarities similar to Bob Dylan's The Bootleg Series, a treasure trove of unreleased songs and epochal live performances that would trump whatever bootleggers had to offer. While rare and unheard music is certainly a key part of Archives, particularly on the first disc covering the pre-history of 1963-1965, viewing this project as merely a music box set is wildly misleading. Neil Young has designed Archives as nothing less than an immersive multimedia autobiography, an interactive experience where the music, text, video, and pictures feed off each other, creating a virtual journey through Neil's past.
Because this is a biography, Archives, Vol. 1 winds up relying very heavily on previously released recordings, containing almost all of Neil Young, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, After the Gold Rush, and Harvest, key Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young cuts, and the previously released archival live albums Live at the Fillmore East 1970 and Live at Massey Hall 1971. Such a large chunk of familiar material is bound to disappoint any listener expecting Archives to be a rarities-only set, forgetting that its origin was as a sequel to Decade, the triple-LP set that mixed up hits with unreleased tunes. Archives follows a similar blueprint, excavating many rare gems -- some, like "Bad Fog of Loneliness," quite familiar to bootleggers; some, like an extraordinary "Dance Dance Dance," cut with Graham Nash, not -- and placing them neatly alongside his well-known jewels, so the end effect isn't a rush of discovery but ongoing quiet revelation, an impression underpinned by the set's leisurely pace.
The entire Archives is designed to trace Neil's evolution, to explain how his dead ends were really detours and how his mood swings weren't all that wild; it preserves Young's history as he perceived it. To that end, the DVD edition of the set is essential to understanding both the project and Neil himself. Often, Young delayed Archives due to the limits of technology, a claim that seemed no more than an excuse to keep the project incomplete, but Archives in its DVD incarnation lives up to all of Neil's promises over the years, coming close to collecting everything -- lyrics, press, artwork, TV performances, doodles, scraps of every sort -- in one place, letting users linger for as long as they'd like in a specific era. Surely, the sound quality is extraordinary -- the music leaps out of the speakers yet never sounds overly clean, digital, or modern -- but it's the interactive nature of the set that impresses most. Acting as a supplement to the text biographies on each disc -- the biography only covering the years on the disc -- the time line places Young's evolution on a broader scale and is illuminated by this extra material, such as a downright thrilling CSNY performance of "Down by the River" on ABC-TV, but this is merely a teaser for the main event: the virtual filing cabinet, where every song on the set has its own folder bulging with handwritten lyrics, press clips, photos, snippets of in-concert introductions, alternate takes -- the list is almost endless and it's always different, so it's easy to flip back to a song and discover a bunch of information you missed the first time around. Add to this, there is an untold number of Easter eggs, sometimes housing the best stuff here, such as videos of Young combing through the archives and reminiscing in 1997, or a 15-minute film clip of Young discovering a CSNY bootleg while record shopping in the early '70s and then taking it from the store.
This level of detail may suggest the one serious flaw in Archives: it cannot be taken casually. It demands complete, undivided attention, requiring users to dig as deep as they'd like, and it's no stretch to say that it could take a week or two to discover everything here. Also, the set comes so tantalizingly close to being complete, it's a major irritation to have one song lopped off each of the albums; surely, the extra storage space on the DVD could have allowed for complete runs of Everybody, Gold Rush, and Harvest. But really, these complaints feel churlish when faced with a box that is an embarrassment of riches, offering so much more than anybody could have imagined during that long, long wait. Not only was the wait worth it, Archives feels like it was 20 years in the making. It's an extraordinary work that redefines what an autobiography can be.