I'm relatively new to the world of Neil Young. After hearing Cowgirl in the Sand on the radio a few years ago, I purchased the predecessor to After the Gold Rush, 1969's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and I enjoy that record thoroughly. After the Gold Rush is my second Young acquisition, and the first thing I'm struck by is the change in mood as the decade rolled over from the 1960s to the 1970s.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is not without its dark moments, but there's a hopeful energy, and even playfulness to songs like Cinnamon Girl. On After the Gold Rush, Young seems to have matured, and in doing so, become considerably gloomier. The lyrics here deal with environmental catastrophe, loneliness, and racism. The instrumentation is sparse, and Young's voice is high and plaintive throughout. The whole thing is a little bit of a downer, which is not to say that it's not great.
One of things I appreciate in an album is the ability to hang together as a unified artistic statement, not just a collection of songs. The seventies were a particularly fertile time for this, the concept of "album rock" having been pioneered just a few years earlier by a combination of the Beatles, whose Rubber Soul inspired Brian Wilson to write a record with no filler, and the Beach Boys, whose resulting Pet Sounds spurred Paul McCartney to create Sargent Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. After the Gold Rush succeeds mightily in this department, sounding completely unified, even as the major songs are divided by short fragments like Till the Morning Comes and Cripple Creek Ferry, this last being an oddly bright and carefree conclusion to an otherwise dark record.
Speaking of Brian Wilson, the waltz-time Only Love Can Break Your Heart is something that would not have been out of place on a late period Beach Boys album, with its simple charm and 3/4 time melody, a rarity for rock albums, even ones as folk-influenced as this one. It's not the only song on the record to employ waltz time, either. In the album's lone cover version, Oh, Lonesome Me is perhaps best known for Johnny Cash's performance, a typical mid-tempo lament backed by the ubiquitous chugga-chugga-chugga of Cash's guitar. Young transforms the song and makes it his own in a way that only the very best covers succeed in doing (think Jimi Hendrix's definitive recording of Bob Dylan's All Along the Watchtower). Young slows the tempo way down and takes the rhythm from 4/4 to 3/4. He also sings it like he means it. He really sounds lonesome. If you didn't know better, you'd never guess that he didn't write the thing.
Mention must be made of the title track, which feels like an epic even though it's less than four minutes long. It's classic Neil Young, composed of a haunting melody, cryptic lyrics, and a painfully tender vocal performance. The song is played entirely on piano, with the exception of a flugelhorn solo midway through. Why flugelhorn? Why not a more conventional choice, like saxophone, guitar, or even a string section? I don't know what inspired him to make this decision, but inspired it is. The horn sounds lonely and just foreign enough to perfectly capture the emotion of the song in a way that other choices wouldn't. It's little touches like that that make the album so interesting.
The other standout track I'd like to mention is Southern Man, the only track on the album that could be fairly described as "rocking". Lyrically, it's a diatribe about racism in the American South that inspired Lynyrd Skynyrd to reply with an affectionate defense of their homeland, Sweet Home Alabama. Good for you, Lynyrd Skynyrd! Musically, I have to admit that I enjoy it more than anything else here. Young is an underrated guitarist who manages to extract a great amount of feeling from very simply solos, and this is really the only chance you get on the record to hear that aspect of his musicianship. I would have liked to hear more.
Neil Young may not be my favorite artist on this list, but I can certainly appreciate a well-crafted record when I hear one, and After the Gold Rush delivers, both in terms of songwriting, production, and performance. I will revisit Young later in this project when it's time to review On the Beach (which I have not heard yet). It will be interesting to see how it compares.