Album review: After the Gold Rush by Neil young
Just over fifty years ago, Neil Young released one of the most lauded singer-songwriter albums of the 70s: After the Gold Rush. The 1970 album came at the tail end of Young’s huge success with the rock group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, commonly known as CSNY. Fusing rock, country and folk, CSNY displayed stunning musical talent, and their diverse musical personalities combined into one cohesive style. The band’s sophomore album, Deja Vu, had been released just a few months before After the Gold Rush. Deja Vu was a massive success, hitting No. 1 on Billboard’s album chart. To date, It has sold 7 million copies. Unfortunately, inner tensions had been building within the band, which decided to take a hiatus after the supporting tour for Deja Vu was finished. Young took this as an opportunity to release a solo album.
After the Gold Rush is a mostly somber affair. It reflects the despair that many people, including Young, felt at the start of the 70s. The Vietnam War was still going on unabated, and subsequently, young Americans were still being drafted to fight, kill and die in Vietnam. It seemed like the anti-war movement that Neil Young supported was not making progress. Also, the hippie culture that had nurtured the anti-war movement was starting to recede and fade away in part due to the events at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival, a counterculture rock concert which had positioned itself to be the next Woodstock, but had ended in four deaths.
This album includes quite a bit of social commentary. However, it never sounds forced or corny in my opinion. “Southern Man” is a good example. The longest song on the album, “Southern Man’ clocks in at nearly six minutes due to the spine-tingling electric guitar jam at the end. It’s one of only two rock songs on the album. In contrast to the whimsical “When You Dance I Can Really Love,” “Southern Man” has its feet firmly planted on the ground. In this song, Young addresses the lingering legacy of slavery in the South. In his nasally tenor, Young sings, “I saw cotton and I saw black/Tall white mansions and little shacks/Southern Man when will you pay them back?/”.
The title track on this album also provides social commentary, but of a much more cryptic and, I think, perhaps more powerful kind. The song is a simple piano-based ballad, but it works beautifully because it gives the listener a more intimate feeling. The song addresses the destruction of the environment, a concern that feels just as prescient now as it did in 1970. “Look at Mother Nature on the run/ in the 1970’s,” Young sings. These two songs speak to me, and I suspect they do to a lot of other people as well.
The rest of the album is also strong, although it does falter in spots.”Tell Me Why” is an effective opener, giving the listener an idea of what the next ten songs will be like. It leans toward the country style, and I love the rolling acoustic guitar.
I am not much of a fan of the most commercially successful song on this album, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” The Top 40 hit sounds a little monotonous, although the pre-choruses have a nice melody. The chorus itself on the other hand is annoying.
“Till the Morning Comes” is a minute long interlude at the end of the first side of the album. A tad pointless, it’s pleasant enough.
Next, Young covers 50s country singer Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me.” Young slows down the song to a crawl and adds a chilling harmonica to the arrangement. It also features, in my opinion, his best singing of the album. Young’s voice here is gentle as well as expressive, and he stays in his range. This is one of my favorite songs on the album. “Don’t Let it Bring You Down” is another good song. It has a propulsive rhythm and a great piano/acoustic guitar chord progression. “Birds” just serves the purpose of padding the album. It’s not bad by any means but very unmemorable. I’ve listened to this track quite a few times, but I always fail to remember how the song goes. The aforementioned “When You Dance I Can Really Love” boasts a catchy and shimmering electric guitar riff. It’s the most upbeat song on the album, and if you’re looking for a traditional, strong pop rock song, this is worth a listen. The second to last track is “I Believe in You,” fits the classic 70s singer/songwriter mold more than any other song on the album . It works perfectly, and it’s a beautiful listen. It would have been a great closer due to its laid-back feel, but Young decided to tack on another mini song a la “Till the Morning Comes” called “Cripple Creek Ferry.” You can basically copy and paste my comments about that song for this song― another one-ish minute track that feels pointless.
This album received five star reviews from Rolling Stone and the Encyclopedia of Popular Music. Add in an A+ from the Village Voice and a 10.0 from Pitchfork, and you have a masterpiece in the eyes of critics. I am inclined to agree with them to an extent. I think this album is definitely weak in spots, as almost all albums are, but it perfectly symbolizes the mood of the times at the turn of the decade. The 60s with their boundless optimism were over, and now, the uncertain decade of the 70s was taking its place. On a letter scale I would give this an A-. It is an amazing album for sure, but I’m not sure it qualifies itself as an A+. Whatever the case, it is definitely worth a buy for anyone interested in the legendary Neil Young’s music. He never really did anything as good going forward, but that is a story for another day. Even if you have just a cursory interest in classic country, classic rock, or good music in general, you’re guaranteed to find a track or two that fascinates you here.
“Southern Man,” “After the Gold Rush,” “Don’t Let it Bring you Down,” “Oh Lonesome Me”