Review Summary: An unexpected, but stellar followup to "Harvest"
Neil Young's "On the Beach" was the second entry in his famed "Ditch Trilogy", a series of three records released in the wake of his chart-topping and critically-acclaimed "Harvest". Named "one of the most despairing albums of the decade" by Rolling Stone upon its release in 1974, it contrasts with much of his previous work due to its crude and bleak production. Regardless, it is known to contain some of his best work and represents an important stage of his extensive solo career.
Side one opens with "Walk On", written as a response to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama", which itself was a response to Young's "Southern Man", which they interpreted as a negative stereotype of the South and its people. It's a very full sounding rocker, greatly contrasting with the mellow mood that dominates the majority of the album, particularly side two. It's certainly one of the more optimistic tracks, illustrating Young's desire to leave his minor feud with Lynyrd Skynyrd in the past and move on.
"See the Sky About to Rain" is the only Harvest-era track on the album, showcasing Young's Wurlitzer electric piano. Lyrically, it's not the most complex, but acts very well in its respective context.
This is followed by "Revolution Blues", the first track of the so-called "blues trilogy". It's a taut, tense rocker inspired by cult leader Charles Manson. It is said that when Young played it for former bandmate David Crosby (who actually played rhythm guitar on the track), he told Young not to sing about Manson, suggesting that the topic was too serious. He released the track anyway, and it certainly stands out as one of the most aggressive songs on the record, and possibly even his entire career.
Next is "For the Turnstiles", a country-inspired track, featuring some nice banjo from Young which is complimented with stellar Dobro work from Ben Keith. Reminds me of some of the material on 1977s "American Stars 'n Bars", probably due to its country-sounding tone.
Then we have the concluding track on side one, "Vampire Blues", which seems to be an attack on the oil industry at the time. Really the only part of the "blues trilogy" that sounds particularly bluesy, it consumes what's left of the energy on the album, paving way for the moody and mellow second half.
Side two opens with the lethargic title track, illustrating the downside of fame. Emphasizing Young's self-isolation and difficulty in dealing with the public, it easily ranks among some of his most auto-biographical work. Despairing lines such as "I need a crowd of people, but I can't face them day to day" are truly representative of his morose state of mind after achieving fame and set the tone for the remainder of the album. Also notable in regards to the track is the inclusion of Graham Nash on Wurlitzer electric piano.
This exercise in lethargy is followed by the album's only ballad, "Moving Pictures", written for actress Carrie Snodgrass, who was Young's love interest at the time. Featuring sparse instrumentation, Young sings of his own personal struggles as well as his relationship with Snodgrass. Rusty Kershaw also contributes some excellent slide guitar work, which compliments Young's acoustic playing quite nicely.
The album closes with Young's tour-de-force, "Ambulance Blues". A very nostalgic piece of writing, Young recounts his early career, referencing the Riverboat, a popular venue for folk artists such as Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, and Simon & Garfunkel. It also describes Young's thoughts on his critics as well as the controversial actions of Richard Nixon, even going to reflect on the current state of CSNY at the time. Clocking in at roughly nine minutes, it says quite a bit about Young's past and his current state.
"On the Beach" is one of Neil Young's most important records not only for being the studio follow-up to "Harvest", but for serving as a reflection of what he was feeling at the time. It ventures into topics he had yet to explore, particularly the downside of fame and self-isolation. Musically, it contains many remarkably beautiful melodies and solid guitar-work. Be aware that although it may be a very demanding listen, it is a rich experience for those who match it with a seriousness of their own. Don't pass it up.