Neil Young will forever be remembered in rock folklore as the man who always did things his own way, never compromising his vision for anyone or anything. Unpredictable and completely unreliable, Neil Young continues to embody the typical rock n’ roll icon in a way that today’s stars could only wish to emulate. But Neil Young doesn’t have a publicist who’ll tip the media off whenever there’s a television to be flung from a hotel window. He’s a man who trusts his instincts and to hell with marketing execs and record company suits.
Naturally, the man’s musical career is just as eclectic and discontinous as his day-to-day behaviour. Those of us who attempt to gain an insight into his music through compilations invariably end up slightly confused. In a recording career spanning almost 40 years, Young has recorded some of the most uplifting hippie anthems and the most downbeat rock tunes (many of his 1980’s recordings led to his becoming a fore-runner for the grunge movement); he’s written some of the most introspective folk ballads and the most euphoric stadium rock anthems. His 2004 Greatest Hits
release is a bold attempt to construct a compilation which spans his entire career while maintaining a sense of continuity. In truth, however, the only true way to listen to Neil Young is album-by-album and there’s no better place to start than his breakthrough solo release, After The Goldrush
After The Goldrush
isn’t Neil Young’s best-known work, but it features his best-known song, Southern Man
, a bitter indictment of post-Civil Right Movement southern America. Young chooses this song, one of two on the album to involve a full electric band, to showcase his guitar chops. Southern Man
is a dirty, dare I say grungey, rocker which is perhaps indicative of the south itself. The pleasant, upbeat vocals disguise an angry, politically charged lyric, depicting the deep south in a rather cartoonish light. His simplistic view of the south as the land of Klansmen, cross-burning and lynching may detract from the song’s power, but it was deemed important enough for a response from southern rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd in their 1974 track “Sweet Home Alabama".
Southern man/You better keep your head/Don’t forget what your good book says.
Southern change’s gonna/Come at last/Now your crosses are burning fast.
Many casual fans of the album will immediately point to the aforementioned and the second electric song on the album, When You Dance I Can Really Love
, as the album’s strongest tracks. Giving my first impression of the album, I was guilty of just such an act. The reasons are obvious. Behind the overlong title lurks a delightful pop song that, believe it or not, you can really dance to. The lyrics are good by pop standards, but in the context of the album they’re merely the break in a sequence. A makeshift Crazy Horse perform both electric songs with plenty of energy and proficiency.
Album-opener Tell Me Why
is about as typical a Neil Young song as you are likely to hear. As with Southern Man
, an upbeat rhythm and melody play counterpoint to a serious message. The acoustic guitar accompaniment is excellent, bass notes are used well to give the song a slight western feel.
I am lonely, but you can free me/All in the way that you smile.
Radio hit Only Love Can Break Your Heart
, Don’t Let It Bring You Down
and I Believe In You
form a trio of piano-led ballads which demonstrate Young’s emotional lyrics and oddly powerful voice. The former sees Young introduce us to his friend "who’s never seen/He hides his head inside a dream"
while lamenting, "Only love can break your heart/What if your world should fall apart."
Young again utilises the trick of dressing a downbeat lyric in a cheerful arrangement.
The latter songs both shift the focus to Young’s vocals which, though an acquired taste, are phenomenal on both tracks. His vocals are aswell superb on my favourite track from the album, Birds
is a haunting ballad, dealing with the end of a relationship. Young, taking the place of a bird, warns his lover. "When you see me fly away without you/Shadow on the things you know/Feathers fall around you/And show you the way to go/It’s over, it’s over"
. The lyrics are tragically beautiful, and utterly endearing.
Oh Lonesome Me
was the surprise choice for the album’s first single, showing how difficult a customer Young is, and is the only survivor from the early sessions for the album. It’s an old country song, written by Don Gibson, and is notable especially for the beautiful but subdued harmonica spot. Till The Morning Comes
and Cripple Creek Ferry
are both short, upbeat piano ditties, clocking in at around 1:30 each. The former serves, as much as anything, as a coda to Southern Man
, while the latter is a suitably quirky outro for the album.
All that is left to mention is the title track. As one would expect from a such-named song, After The Goldrush
sums up the album in a mere three minutes. A disciple of the eco-conservationist movement, Young saves for the album opener his most poetic encoded message, noting, "Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970’s"
, a prophesy of the rape of the world’s resources by the industrial sector and beyond. His sentiment was to be echoed years later by one Kurt Cobain, a lifetime fan, in his composition “Rape Me".