Tuesday, 20 March 2012

After The Gold Rush - Neil Young - album review

After recently writing blog posts about two of Neil Young's classic 1970s albums, I thought that I would take a look at the Canadian singer-songwriter's first effort of the decade, After The Gold Rush.

Commonly cited as Young's quintessential "singer-songwriter" LP, it is in fact quite a diverse and varied piece of work, containing many of the elements which have made his career so enduringly fascinating and unpredictable.

The album opens with "Tell Me Why", which contains ingredients from both Young's troubadour days, and also the style of Crosby Stills and Nash, with whom he had recently been collaborating when this was recorded. The vocal harmonies here are fragile and airy, and somewhat unique in flavour to After The Gold Rush.

The title track follows, and is one of those songs which was very much in keeping with the tenor of its time, hinting at apocalypse and subsequent rebirth.  Similar themes to Jackson Browne's "For Everyman" and "Wooden Ships" by CSN.

It is fair to say that many of the stronger compositions on this album are packed in at the start, and this is maintained with "Only Love Can Break Your Heart", which has become almost a standard because of many renditions by other artists. This original drifts by without drawing that much attention to itself, and is quite difficult to categorise and define, so I won't bother trying!

The track which aroused most discussion and debate was "Southern Man".  Apart from its socio-political message, this is a very powerful track musically, with perhaps the last major outing on record for some time of Young's idiosyncratic, brittle and meandering guitar style.  The piano-playing on this song is also sometimes forgotten, adding depth and helping to drive the melody along.

It has to be said that the remaining tracks are a mixed bag, two of them being brief and rather whimsical items, "Till The Morning Comes" and "Cripple Creek Ferry".  These, together with the perfunctory and incongruous cover of Don Gibson's "Oh Lonesome" Me, tend to belie the reputation of After The Gold Rush as a classic of its kind.  Whether Young was short on genuinely strong material around this time, it can only be speculated. Of course, some of his superior creations were being diverted to CSNY, and other projects.

These weaker links are balanced out by some memorable and beautiful moments towards the close of the album. "Birds" and "I Believe in You" are far from the most popularly revered songs here, but they both have charm and finesse, and have not suffered from the over-familiarity associated with the earlier "marquee" numbers. Again, piano is used to considerable effect on both of these songs.

After The Gold Rush is something of a hinge in this phase of Neil Young's journey, having a character of its own, but still showing the legacy of his early albums, and paving the way for the more "commercial" period, albeit relatively brief, on which he was about to embark.

Whilst there are some strong songs, and an appealing "organic" and sparse feel throughout, it has possibly been slightly over-rated. This was one of the first Neil Young albums which I listened to, and I judged it before exploring other areas of his catalogue. Once I had been exposed to Tonight's The Night and On The Beach, After the Gold Rush began to sound much tamer and anodyne; almost, but not quite, a case of treading water.

So even if the passage of time, and repeated exposure, dulls its impact, and makes it appear ever so slightly sterile, After The Gold Rush is still a great listen.

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