‘‘You’re a Neil Young fan?’’ a friend of a friend once asked me. ‘‘Really?”
‘‘LOVE Neil Young’’ I clarified, putting on my best ‘‘don’t **** with me!’’ look.
‘‘You don’t think his voice is annoyingly whiny?’’
‘‘You don’t find a lot of his music to be plodding, uninspiring dad-rock?’’
“Not in any way’’.
‘‘Hmm, ok. Well… Southern Man is a good track I guess’’.
‘‘Southern Man is a GREAT track!’’
If my memory serves me well the conversation petered out seconds later. ‘‘So, how about that weather?’’
In keeping with many of my most rewarding musical adventures, I discovered Neil Young chronologically. As with The Beatles, Nick Drake and Radiohead, I instantly knew he deserved a place in my Top 20. Which only left the agonizing decision of which record to go for. The classic timelessness of Harvest? The dark and edgy On The Beach? Or maybe the live artistic reinventions of Rust Never Sleeps? Struggling somewhat to make my choice, in the end I simply picked the album that I go back to the most, the one that seems to glow ethereally as my hand hovers over the Y shelf of my record collection.
Released in September 1970, After the Gold Rush was Young’s third album as a solo artist, its songs inspired by the screenplay of an unmade film. A predominantly acoustic country rock affair, lyrically it touches on relationships, loneliness, racism and the environment. The record was also an impressive exercise in brevity, the eleven songs clocking in at just thirty-five minutes and ten seconds.
Opening number Tell Me Why is unapologetic in its strummed, harmony-soaked cheerfulness, Young admitting ‘‘I am lonely, but you can free me, all in the way that you smile’’. Next up is the title track, an ode to the damaging effects of industrialisation, his doom-laden vocals talking of ‘‘mother nature on the run’’ and the potential for ‘‘a new home in the sun’’. Accompanied by a melancholic piano figure, sad guitar chords and a reflective French horn solo, Young’s abnormally high voice has rarely sounded so earnest.
Then comes Only Love Can Break Your Heart, an emotive ballad allegedly written for CSNY band mate Graham Nash after his split from singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. Whether aimed at his friend, or the listener in general, Neil has words of wisdom to impart for future romances. ‘‘Try to be sure from the start’’ he advises, before posing the question ‘‘What if your world should fall apart?’’
On Southern Man he dives headfirst into politically sensitive waters, with an anti-redneck rant condemning racism in America’s Deep South. ‘‘I heard screaming and bullwhips cracking’’ he snarls, before goading his targets with a gleeful ‘‘Southern change gonna come at last! Now your crosses are burning fast!’’ Hitting the airwaves during the time of desegregation, the song caused great repugnance among Southerners, with hard rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd purportedly issuing a rebuttal through their 1974 hit Sweet Home Alabama.
As if by design, After The Gold Rush’s most contentious moment is followed by its least offensive. The way-too-brief Till The Morning Comes is a cute little ditty with a catchy horn arrangement and saloon-style piano playing. Just as you find yourself tapping your feet it’s over and he’s onto Oh, Lonesome Me, a cover of the 1957 song by Don Gibson with Chet Atkins. ‘‘Everybody is going out and having fun, I’m a fool for staying in and having none’’ he moans on a harmonica-tinged lament over unrequited love.
Don’t Let It Bring You Down has always stood out as an album highlight, thanks to its ominous imagery and soothing melodies. In a big city where ‘‘the buildings scrape the sky’’, there’s an ‘‘old man lying by the side of the road’’. But nobody stops to help him, so soon enough the old man becomes a dead man and life goes on, ‘‘don’t let it bring you down’’. A hugely affecting track highlighting the often-suffocating alienation of city life, Young paints a bleak picture of ‘‘lorries rolling by’’, ‘‘red lights flashing’’ and a ‘‘cold wind ripping down the alley at dawn’’.
Moving into the closing quartet and Birds is a touching breakup song in which Young has dumped a lover, ‘‘see me fly without you’’, but sticks around to observe the aftermath. ‘‘Feathers fall around you, and show you the way to go’’. When You Dance I Can Really Love meanwhile is a high-energy rocker with hard guitars and erratic piano, the lyrics taking a back seat as Young and friends let the track descend into carefree jamming. Then it’s back to frank piano-led balladry for I Believe In You, a somewhat soppy and plodding number that for me has always been the album’s least memorable track. And so it’s left to Cripple Creek Ferry to close proceedings, a light-hearted song about a river cruise featuring ‘‘overhanging trees’’, a sea boat captain and a hatted gambler. Loose and joyous, it’s easy to imagine it performed in a forest at midnight, Young and his comrades huddled around a crackling campfire.
A seemingly recurring theme across my Top 20 records, After The Gold Rush wasn’t a critical success upon release. But like a fine wine it’s aged very well indeed, burrowing its way into the Greatest Albums lists and hailed as a landmark release among his dedicated fanbase.
Choice Quote: “Here is a new song, it’s guaranteed to bring you right down, it’s called ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’. It sorta starts off real slow and then fizzles out altogether”. – Neil Young performing live in 1971.
Choice Lyric: ‘‘I was thinking about what a friend had said, I was hoping it was a lie’’. – From After the Gold Rush. Although I’ve never understood the true meaning of this line, it has always struck me as an incredibly sad lyric.
Like this? For those unfamiliar with Young’s output, look no further than ATGR’s follow-up Harvest (1972). With his music having influenced a host of today’s most celebrated rock bands, I’ve always considered the alt-country outfit Wilco to be proud flag-wavers of Young’s legacy. And the release that most typifies this is their excellent 1996 double album Being There.