One For Keeps is a features series in which musicOMH writers wax lyrical on albums they’d just not be able to cope without. To coincide with the release of its 50th Anniversary Edition this month, Chris White argues why half a century on, After The Gold Rush remains Neil Young’s greatest record
After an uncertain start to his post-Buffalo Springfield solo career with his disappointingly bland self-titled 1968 debut, Neil Young’s next two albums went on to define his entire subsequent career.
Bar a few ill-advised 1980s missteps – notably the bizarre synthesizer and vocoder dominated Trans – Young’s prodigious output can largely be split into two distinct categories. On 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, released a mere four months after Neil Young, the young Canadian set the template for the first of these two defining styles by forging a brand of sprawling, unpolished but deeply emotive garage rock he was to return to time and again on classic works like Tonight’s The Night, Zuma and Ragged Glory. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, which saw Young began his association with his iconic Californian backing band Crazy Horse, was as confident and assured as its predecessor was tentative, giving us songs of the quality of Cinnamon Girl and Cowgirl In The Sand, which remain hugely popular staples of his back catalogue to this day.
Barely a year later, Young emerged again to share what was to become his second enduring guise – the poetic, acoustic singer-songwriter. While he had certainly explored country and folk influences with both Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (the superlative Helpless being a prime example), with After The Gold Rush, Young showed consistently for the first time his ability to mine traditional American music and blend its sounds with rock’s melodic immediacy to deliver songs that felt both organic and accessible.
While not the most successful of his more pastoral albums (that was its follow up, Harvest) nor his most rootsy (a close call between 1978’s Comes A Time and 1985’s Old Ways), there’s a compelling argument that After The Goldrush is the most complete record of Young’s entire career. This is partly because of the sheer quality of the songs, but also the beautifully judged musical textures, the restrained elegance of the performances and Young’s lyrical versatility, which tackles subjects ranging from universal themes of love and loss to evocative depictions of a flawed America.
Recorded in California between December 1969 and June 1970 and featuring musicians including Crazy Horse’s Ralph Molina and a teenage Nils Lofgren, After The Gold Rush still sounds remarkably crisp and fresh half a century on.
First track Tell Me Why draws the listener in instantly, with Young’s vivid opening line “sailing heart-ships through broken harbors” showcasing both the yearning, reedy voice and idiosyncratic imagery that would go on to characterise so much of his future work. Yet while its delicious harmonies and jangling guitar certainly set out the album’s stall impressively, Tell Me Why is a minor delight compared to what’s to come in the next three songs.
After The Gold Rush’s title track, which comes second in the running order, remains one of Young’s best loved compositions of all, and with good reason. Boasting a melody that’s undeniably gorgeous, delivered in a tremulous tenor and backed by cascades of rolling piano and a wonderful flugelhorn solo, it also has some of the most extraordinary lyrics in popular music. Based on an unpublished screenplay by Dean Stockwell, which Young had intended to write the soundtrack for, the song tells a surreal tale of time travel back to the Middle Ages culminating in a visit to another planet, with the refrain “look at mother nature on the run in the 1970s” perhaps a prescient reference to a future climate crisis that now seems all too accurate.
In comparison, Only Love Can Break Your Heart is a simple, wistful country-tinged ballad, but once again, it has a melody to die for, with some soaring harmonies imbuing the song with an almost hymnal quality. Released as a single in October 1970, it became Young’s first Top 40 hit as a solo artist, peaking at Number 33 in the US.
Things take an altogether more raucous turn on Southern Man, which as well as being one of only two predominantly electric tracks on the album, also embroiled Young in a well-documented controversy. The song’s condemnation of racism in the Deep South of the US pulled few punches, leading to accusations of broad brush stereotyping and prompting proud Southerners Lynyrd Skynyrd to respond by penning the altogether more positive outlook of Sweet Home Alabama.
Southern Man is Young at his fearlessly confrontational best, a trait he’s still showing today with his lawsuit against Donald Trump’s campaign for playing two of his songs at campaign rallies without permission. It’s also a superb rock song, with some searing guitar work from Young and a chorus dripping with passionate anger.
After Southern Man’s incendiary intervention, After The Gold Rush soon settles back into a gentler groove. And although none of the remaining tracks would necessarily make a Young’s Greatest Hits compilation, they are all in their own way perfectly crafted examples of their creator’s songwriting gifts in full bloom.
Each song has a distinctive element that makes them memorable: whether it be the jaunty flugelhorn on Till The Morning Comes, the mournful harmonica on Oh, Lonesome Me, or Young’s sublime vocal delivery on Don’t Let It Bring You Down and Birds.
When You Dance I Can Really Love, the album’s other heavier rocker, is perhaps the weakest offering here, although it still serves up some excellent guitar and piano work. But Young’s back at the top of the game for the final two tracks – I Believe In You, another magically tuneful, mellow ballad, and Cripple Creek Ferry, a Band-like rustic campfire singalong which, while frustratingly brief at just over 90 seconds, is a lovely, lilting way to close what’s a truly outstanding album.
The 50th Anniversary Edition vinyl box set of After The Gold Rush features a variant of the album artwork, originally created by Neil’s long-time art director Gary Burden, made in collaboration with Grammy Award-winning artist Jenice Heo. The set also includes a 7” single in a picture sleeve, with two agreeable versions of the infectious if slight album outtake Wonderin’.
Choosing one Neil Young record above all others is a thankless task, as it’s hard to think of another artist who has maintained such a high level of quality control over such a long period. Although his absolute peak years are generally considered to be 1969-79, Young continues to regularly release new music despite now being well into his 70s. There are persuasive cases to be made for at least half a dozen other candidates to be his crowing achievement – the burgeoning, breakthrough brilliance of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere; Rust Never Sleeps, with its peerless 50/50 acoustic/electric split; the stark, cathartic power of Tonight’s The Night and On The Beach; the timeless grace of Harvest and its equally lovely later sequel Harvest Moon. But for this writer, After The Gold Rush trumps them all.
Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush 50th Anniversary Edition is out now through Reprise. Further information can be found here.