CANADA: After The Gold Rush - Neil Young
Updated: Jan 20
Flashes of brilliance amidst an otherwise pleasant plethora of folky tunes
Full disclosure, Neil Young has always been one of my big musical blind-spots. What I knew about him and his music was limited to a handful of songs, where I could always enjoy the occasional inclusion of a harmonica, whilst being slightly put-off by the fact that he had always seemed to sing about his general fear of talking to women and more broadly themes of unrequited love. Whilst I am not trying to imply that male insecurity is not a worthy topic that should be addressed within some music, I always previously felt like it was a bit cloying when he would sing about it, especially with the one piece of Neil Young trivia that I had in the bank was that he would drive around in a hearse - not exactly helping himself in his ploy to attract the opposite sex.
“I never fail to enjoy the album as a whole, and there are definitely moments in which I find myself caught up in amazement of its occasional excellence.”
That being said, I never really gave him his fair due, so when I gave his third studio album After The Gold Rush a listen for the first time, I was in some respects blown away. Whilst it is not a totally consistent album, there is a lot to like and it certainly dispels the false preconception I had that all he does is whine. Lyrically, it is a little bit of a strange album, but that can be forgiven as it was written as the soundtrack for a film that was never made, and therefore his influence for his lyrical choices I assume were informed by the script he would have received. However, what really shone for me on were Young’s musical choices.
Whilst the album is mostly compiled of folk songs and that is perhaps where the Canadian singer-songwriter is most comfortable, he really shows off his talent when he delves into the rock genre. I particularly like track When You Dance I Can Really Love in which he adeptly shows off his rock sensibility, after having already done so once before in my favourite song on the record, Southern Man. The song is somewhat jarring in the context of the album, as it is a lyrically pertinent high-energy track which is quite distinct from the rest of the music on display. Whilst I think that this song is particularly great for its guitar solo, I also love the beat more generally and I think that as Young does not have the best vocal talents in the world, being away from a more acoustic sound of just him and a guitar, this tempo suits him. Rather bizarrely, for whatever reason I don’t actually have an issue with the fact that he sounds slightly off-key, like I might do with some other artists. To me, Southern Man is the kind of song that fits with a voice that sounds like someone singing without a care in the world of whether there is an audience listening, like they might do when in the shower; if anything it is kind of endearing.
The song itself has an interesting backstory, and is seemingly the only political track on the album, as it talks about reparations for racism in the Deep South of the America. Southern Man caused a slight feud between him and Lynard Skynard frontman Ronnie Van Zandt who alludes to Young’s critique of racist Southern attitudes in the lyrics to their hit track Sweet Home Alabama, in which he sings ‘well, I hope Neil Young will remember, a Southern Man don't need him around anyhow’. One other interpretation of Southern Man could be about racism more broadly across the whole of the United States because as a Canadian he could perhaps be referencing those south of the border to his nation.
Whilst Southern Man and When You Dance I Can Really Love are most definitely great rock tunes, that does not mean to say there are no other belters on this album that are a bit softer. The opening three tracks that proceed Southern Man (Tell Me Why, the title-track After the Gold Rush and Only Love Can Break Your Heart) are lovely and definitely create for a much stronger first half of the album than the second half, with the exception of I Believe in You which still holds up. There is not a bad song on the album, but it definitely is not as consistent an album as some of the other great folk albums that are spoken about in the same breath as After The Gold Rush, such as Astral Weeks by Van Morrison. Whilst the album did make me appreciate Neil Young far more than I ever did, the sparks of genius throughout the album are not regular enough to make this an album that is one of the greatest of all time. That said, I never fail to enjoy the album as a whole, and there are definitely moments in which I find myself caught up in amazement of its occasional excellence.