After the Gold Rush was Neil Young’s first solo venture since working with Crosby, Stills & Nash. He had issued two solo albums during the previous decade, 1968’s self titled Neil Young, and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the following year. But it was Gold Rush that really put him in the full spotlight of the public eye, as a singer/songwriter to be reckoned with. At the time Rolling Stone magazine published a disparaging review (how unusual) by Langdon Winner, and I quote: “…more of the songs here rise above the uniformly dull service… This pie is only half baked.” Personally I’d say that it was Winner’s own judgement which was half baked. Yet in order to put things into perspective, we need to understand the circumstances under which the album was made, and the inspiration behind it.
The bulk of the record was made in Young’s DIY home studio at Topanga Canyon. In a move that seemed like a throw of the dice, Young had asked an as yet unheard of 18 year old Nils Lofgren to join him on keys (a peculiar choice since Lofgren had little experience with the instrument). Other contributors included Billy Talbot and Greg Reeves (bass), Jack Nitzsche (piano), as well as members of Crazy Horse, Ralph Molina (drums) and Danny Whitten (guitar).
Partly motivated by Dean Stockwell’s environmentally themed film script of the same name, Young had approached Stockwell offering to produce the soundtrack. But when the film fell through, Young pressed on anyway. After the Gold Rush is a ballad-rich, piano-dominated country-rock record, and one which would contain many of the elements Young continued to explore on future LP’s, most notably 1972’s mega-selling Harvest, and several years later on There Comes A Time.
Opening song “Tell Me Why” sets the mood of the LP with simple acoustic backing and gorgeous harmonies courtesy of Stephen Stills, Young and Lofgren. Not exactly the most uplifting way to start a LP, but then Neil was just that kind of bloke. Anyone expecting full-blown electric guitars and a rocking rhythm section must have wondered what the heck was going on. The title track follows, and is arguably one of Neil’s most enduring statements, with only voice, accompanied by piano and French horn. It’s beautiful, and when he sings “Look at Mother Nature on the run/In the 1970’s” one can’t help but pause and reflect on our own environmental problems today.
The strangely comforting “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” draws the listener even further away from Rock. Consisting of nothing more than acoustic guitar, piano and drums, each instrument seems to be in a state of rivalry in terms of which can sound the least in unison with what Neil is playing.
Now after the last few numbers “Southern Man” must have had many a listener in a state of rapture, whose grinding riffs and emotive vocals no doubt heartened many fans who may have begun to fear that Neil had given up on electric instruments altogether. The song is also one of Neil’s most contentious and controversial up to that point (“Ohio” being the other one), where he takes a powerful swipe at the hypocritical religious-right, the Klan, and anyone else from the American South who subscribed to the practise of racial prejudice. Unsurprisingly it pissed off a whole lot of people, who were resentful of Young’s seemingly blanketed stereotyping of Southerners in general. Several years later Lynyrd Skynyrd would respond with a song of their own, the classic “Sweet Home Alabama”, as if to say not everyone below the Mason-Dixie line was a rabid ‘Strange Fruit’ loving redneck. And if they were, how does one explain The Allman Brothers Band? But all controversy aside, it remains a potent track, with backing vocals by Crosby, Stills & Nash, plus some superb albeit edgy piano from Lofgren, who adds a little extra tension to the dynamics, almost as if by accident (something which I’m sure delighted Neil).
“Till the Morning Comes” is a brief and jolly way to conclude side one. Whether it’s the sort of tune which really belongs on this album I’m not sure. So I guess it’s a question of take it or leave it.
Side Two opens with a cover of “Oh Lonesome Me”, a country tune written by Don Gibson (someone whom I can’t say I’m familiar with). Young’s own interpretation is so sloppy and despair-ridden that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the singer didn’t wind up dialling the suicide help line soon after he had finished. And just when you think things can’t any more depressing, the dirge-like “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” is next, but don’t worry, because when Neil sings the line of the title, there is still a sense of hope for both the artist and audience, no matter how bleak things get.
“Birds” is plaintive piece, built on nothing but sole piano and Neil’s voice (with some additional vocals during the chorus). As depressing as the song might seem, the theme itself is quite uplifting, as if Neil were a priest on his pulpit telling his flock that there will indeed be better days.
“When You Dance I Can Really Love” offers Young the chance to switch on his amp and turn up the volume. And it’s about time I must say. What is this, a James Taylor record? “I Believe In You” is another languid yearning country song where Neil expresses his love toward the woman he loves.
The album ends with the quirky “Cripple Creek Ferry”, a song Young had apparently written specifically for the aborted movie soundtrack. At less than a minute and a half, it basically comes and goes before the listener has had time to actually appreciate it. And there you have it.
Released in 1970, the album was generally dismissed by numerous critics of the period; however it didn’t take long before After the Gold Rush began to be held in high esteem, to the extent that it is now regarded as an essential chapter in the ever evolving novel that is Neil Young, a songwriter who had no equal, not because he was necessarily superior to his contemporaries, it’s just that no-one else sounded remotely similar, like some rare genus of bird whose feathers are all its own.