Nils Lofgren has a story unlike any other in rock & roll. Something of a teenage rock & roll prodigy, he first made waves when he played on Neil Young's After the Gold Rush at the tender age of 17, just around the time his D.C.-based band Grin relocated to Los Angeles in hopes of hitting the big time. Grin never became stars, but Lofgren did. His association with Young provided a launch pad for a solo career that was acclaimed and fitfully commercially successful, with the late-'70s albums Cry Tough, I Came to Dance, and Night After Night all making waves in album rock. This run at solo stardom lasted roughly a decade, beginning with his eponymous 1975 debut and ending with 1985's Flip, the record he released after joining Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band as Steven Van Zandt's replacement in 1984. Springsteen kept Nils around once Little Steven returned to the fold and Lofgren's membership in the E-Street Band allowed him the luxury of pursuing all of his musical whims on indie labels, developing an idiosyncratic catalog known only to hardcore fans, of which there were many.
Face the Music, a massive nine-CD/single-DVD box set released in 2014, doesn't strive to convert the skeptics but its very heft suggests that Lofgren is worth consideration outside of the confines of his cult. That said, due to its very size, listening to Face the Music does require dedication. Combined, the ten discs do indeed provide a biography of Lofgren, with each disc telling a different chapter. The Grin years of 1971-1973 are on the first disc; the beginning flourishes of his solo career on the second (1975-1977), and the third disc chronicles 1979-1983, when he was collaborating with Lou Reed and Bob Ezrin while wrapping up his time on the album rock circuit. Disc four picks up the story in 1985, then ends after 1991's Silver Lining and 1992's Crooked Line, the pair of records he made for Rykodisc. The next three discs, which are a considerable chunk of the box, round up independent and self-released recordings made between 1993 and 2011; largely home-made, these recordings still sound expensive, which is one of the perks of having a day job as Springsteen's right-hand man. The final two CDs offer a clearinghouse of rarities from throughout the years, ranging from a decidedly quirky "Whatever Happened to Muscatel" co-written by author Clive Cussler to a wonderful early take on Lofgren's signature "Keith Don't Go," here performed by Grin featuring Neil Young on piano and vocals. One of the great pleasures of Face the Music is that it allows for a gem like this to be excavated, but one of the mild frustrations is that this is a decidedly personal telling of Lofgren's story, as indicated by how, apart from the live take on the DVD, this is the only version of "Keith Don't Go" here. A definitive, career-spanning box of this size should find room for such an important original recording, but the fact that Face the Music doesn't just underscores how eccentric a rocker Nils is: he follows his own path, one that sometimes touches upon familiar territory but often goes far afield, sometimes finding detours and sometimes stumbling upon dead ends, but always enjoying the journey. Perhaps it'd be better to sample this ten-disc travelog in pieces -- perhaps that's the only way to listen to a box as large as this -- but each individual installment provides its own peculiar, satisfying pleasures and, when combined, all the discs paint a deep, detailed portrait of a rocker unlike any other. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine