Neil Young Neil Young (1968), Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969), After The Goldrush (1970), Harvest (1972)
It’s getting hard to keep up with Neil Young. In addition to a new studio LP, 2009 has seen the release of the green-car concept album Fork in the Road, a new live set (Dreamin’ Man Live ’92), and of course the 10-disc Blu-Ray/DVD/CD extravaganza Archives Vol. 1, which documents the first 10 years of his musical life. Not to mention that just over a year ago Sugar Mountain – Live at Canterbury House 1968 came out, so that even seems relatively new. We’re drowning in Neil Young this year, which for hardcore fans (and it seems like the percentage of his fanbase that meets this criteria increases every year) isn’t such a bad thing.
Add to the above the “Neil Young Archives Official Release Series,” which is the umbrella term for the wholesale reissue of Young’s catalog in remastered form. The first four albums, from 1968’s Neil Young to 1972’s Harvest, were released on CD under the banner a few months back, which made the Archives set even more confusing than it seemed initially. Since much of Archives turned out to be previously issued material, with some albums appearing almost in their entirety, it stood to reason that it would serve as the best way to hear these songs for a while. Anyone ponying up between $100 and $300 for Archives surely already had all those albums, and they’ll probably want the better-sounding versions in their original form, too. Young, like Bob Dylan, is almost impossible to read as far as stuff like this goes. It’s easy to say that he’s ripping people off by getting them to buy the same music over and over. But so many of his puzzling moves over the years, such as refusing to put out On the Beach on CD even though fans were clamoring for it, would seem to be to his financial detriment.
Here’s one more for the shelf: the first four albums have been packaged in two limited edition box sets. The CD version is pressed on 24-karat gold discs, and the packaging is new; the vinyl is pressed on 180-gram records (as opposed to 140-gram for the standard issue of the LPs). The vinyl set, which is what I listened to for this review, is going for $150, which certainly isn’t cheap. It packages the records in extra-heavy gatefold sleeves that will probably outlive me, and includes full-size reproductions of the original inserts, but there’s no extra documentation otherwise. For me, there’s an irony in listening to these deluxe versions, because I’ve long regarded used vinyl copies of Harvest as a litmus test for record stores. If they’re selling a used copy in excellent shape for $4 or $5, it’s my kind of shop; if they’re selling it for $8 or $9, I’m probably somewhere in the New York Metropolitan Area. Fact is, Harvest was the #1 selling album of 1972, and it continued to sell all through the 1970s. Literally millions of copies were pressed, and used copies are very easy to find. It’s a record that shouldn’t cost a lot of money.
Which is not to say it’s not a great record. All four of these albums, in fact, are excellent– records that everyone should have in their collection eventually, in whatever format. I say “eventually” because Neil Young is an artist you shouldn’t force yourself to get into; his most devoted fans are so convinced of his genius, and so bent on tracking down every last bootleg, that it’s easy to hear a few songs and decide that Young isn’t such a big deal. Sometimes it can just take a little while to come around to his music, and you need to be in the right frame of mind.
Harvest, whatever your copy ends up costing you, closed out one of the stronger four-album career-opening runs in pop history. Of course, Young had some practice before he went solo, so he had a head start. After gigging around Canada as a teenager in the garage-rock outfit the Squires, he headed out to L.A. and hooked up with the newly forming Buffalo Springfield in 1966. They were a band with a few songwriters, each of whom had their own personality, and Young’s songs (“For What It’s Worth”, the group’s biggest hit, wasn’t one of them) revealed an emerging and distinctive voice. In 1968, he left the band and started his solo career, releasing Neil Young at the end of the year.
The album bearing only Neil Young’s name is the one that sounds least like him. It’s a fine psych-tinged folk-rock set with colorful arrangements and top-shelf instrumental contributors like guitarist Ry Cooder and visionary keyboardist and arranger Jack Nitzsche, who would continue to work with Young periodically through the 70s. But Young himself sounds oddly tentative throughout, as if he weren’t quite sure what he wanted his music to sound like, and this is his most restrained singing on record. There are echoes of the great music to come, like the ballad “The Old Laughing Lady”, and the arrangements are lush and inviting, but Neil Young in a sense represents a road not taken, and it’s most interesting now in comparison to what was to come.
The opening riff to “Cinnamon Girl”, the song that kicks off Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, erases the memory of Neil Young completely in about five seconds. In the months following the release of his debut, Young hooked up with a ragtag trio of musicians from a band called the Rockets, renamed them Crazy Horse, and found his raison d’être. Where the performances on Neil Young were eminently professional, the sophisticated and exacting parts executed with polished precision, Crazy Horse were loose and sloppy, privileging groove and feeling above all. Many of Young’s seasoned contemporaries considered them an embarrassment, but for him they represented a new way of thinking about music, one that favored intuition and stayed true to the moment. A year later he would hook up with the hugely successful Crosby, Stills and Nash; Young would eventually call CSNY his Beatles, while Crazy Horse was his Stones. By this logic, they were making music on the level of Sticky Fingers from the jump.
Discussion of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere usually gravitates toward the two extended guitar workouts, “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”. Both are masterpieces of rock minimalism, demonstrating the power of repetition as the Crazy Horse rhythm section of Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot cycle through the chords and Young solos endlessly in his grimy, deeply-felt tone, playing off the subtle, prodding rhythm work of guitarist Danny Whitten. But the more compressed and accessible moments on the record are just as powerful. The title track is a brash, rollicking country-rocker in the vein of the Band, while “Round & Round (It Won’t Be Long)” is a gorgeous acoustic ballad that finds Young, Whitten, and violinist Robin Lane engaged in three-part harmony on the achingly slow chorus. Best of all on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Young sounds comfortable and confident, singing with the versatile (and hugely influential) voice that has changed remarkably little in the 40 years since.
Everybody Knows was a sort of big bang for Young, a dense moment of creative explosion that saw possibilities expanding in every direction. So its follow-up was anything but a retread. With his newfound confidence, Young was poised to stretch, and After the Gold Rush sounds a bit like an overview of the Great American Songbook but with one guy writing almost all the songs. Members of Crazy Horse appear in various combinations on a few of tracks, and songs like “Southern Man” and “When You Dance I Can Really Love” have the hypnotically stoned but sneakily intense groove of the previous record. But more precisely crafted songs like “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, “Birds”, and especially the astonishing title track, which has become a rock standard, show Young’s gift as a writer of original melodies of extraordinary beauty in full flower. It’s an aspect of Young’s work that can be overlooked: the guy can write a simple tune over a chord change that hollows you out completely. Sure, the record has a phrase or two that might sound a little dippy to those with an aversion to hippies (Young was one of those, though of a very individualistic sort), but After the Gold Rush is basically unassailable. There’s a reason why it’s the favorite Neil Young album for so many.
Which brings us back to Harvest, Young’s mainstream breakthrough. Stepping away from Crazy Horse and hooking up with Nashville session musicians he dubbed the Stray Gators, Harvest finds Young experimenting again with a richer, more painstaking studio sound, but one informed by the spontaneity he’d found so inspiring. It’s probably his best sounding album, and the ear tends to gravitate to the rhythm section in particular, as bassist Tim Drummond and drummer Kenny Buttrey are almost absurdly in the pocket throughout. (Here I should note that, while they certainly cost a lot of money, the vinyl pressings of these four albums live up to the hype: whisper quiet and clear but full and punchy– these records have never sounded better).
But Young’s songs, though not up to the level of Gold Rush, continue his winning streak. “Out on the Weekend” and the title track set the table for a mellow, rootsy, and breezily melodic album, which later songs like “Heart of Gold” and “Are You Ready for the Country” continue, but Harvest has a more tormented side as well. “A Man Needs a Maid”, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, is one of his stranger creations, an affecting portrait of loneliness undercut with a clumsy, lunkheaded chorus refrain, the sincerity of which has never been quite clear. “Old Man” is something of a signature song, laying out the wizened, long-view outlook that didn’t fit with his chronological age (by the time of the record’s release, Young was 26). And then there’s harrowing and radiant “The Needle and the Damage Done”: at just over two minutes, it’s far too short, almost painfully so, just like the lives of the junkies it was written about. Soon enough, two people close to Young, Crazy Horse’s Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, would die from drugs.
The unexpected success of Harvest, combined with the grief and guilt Young felt after Whitten and Berry died, would send Young into a dark and raw place with his next few records as he famously “headed for the ditch” to escape the middle of the road. Hereafter, an always-fascinating mix of success and failure would define Young’s career, and along the way he’d make some pretty lousy records along with the great ones. To embrace Young as an artist after Harvest would mean accepting his many flaws (including the questionable business decisions, like the many confusing releases of this year), which have made his career unusually rich and varied as well as maddeningly inconsistent. But all that would come later. Enjoying this brilliant four-album run requires no special commitment.
This is often considered to be Neil’s best, but I can’t really do justice to this rumour, seeing as I haven’t yet heard everything the man pumped out (and he pumped out quite a lot). Out of the albums I own, though, it is really the most solid and melodically rich, though it takes some time to understand it. By 1970, Neil Young had finally figured out his act, and his plans on here are obvious – he is planning to replace Bob Dylan on the singer-songwriting scene, trying to combine the man’s lyrical wit, ‘father-of-the-nation’-personality vibe, and stripped-down arrangements with a more heart-wrenching intonation and an occasional tasty distorted guitar lick now and then.
In a certain sense, he succeeded: this album started rock critique’s lengthy and passionate romance with Neil that lasts up to this day and is as sickeningly overblown as possible. But, musically speaking, he fails: his whiny voice is far better than Dylan’s, and this gives most of the songs an unpleasant, pretentious feel: the title track, even if it is one of the best numbers on the whole record, sounds too prog-rockish to be really representative of ‘the heart of the nation’. If anything, Neil is simply not the perfect candidate for that ‘salt-of-the-earth’ image the critics love to assign him every now and then: he’s far too clever, experimental, and, well, whiny for that status.
However, this does not mean that the album isn’t enjoyable. Like I said, it’s a bit hard to get into, but once you’ve filtered away the filler, the task won’t be so frustrating. Most of the songs look simplistic: ‘ordinary’ acoustic or piano ballads, diversified a little with a couple of moderate rockers, one on each side. Neil is backed by members of the Crazy Horse, his beloved band, but it doesn’t really look like a band effort: if not for the lush harmonies on much of the tracks (sometimes provided by Steve Stills), you wouldn’t really know ’bout no stinkin’ band.
But the album is not ‘folky’ or ‘countryish’, like Harvest; instead, Neil goes for a more pop approach on most of the tracks. Several of the ballads are utterly dispensable, like the loose, sappy, hookless love ballad ‘Birds’ or the cover of Don Gibson’s ‘Oh Lonesome Me’ – can a song like that one truly belong on a classic album? It’s just a by-the-book country number that doesn’t deviate from the ‘standard’ formula not by one iota. And I utterly hate that monotonous ‘pam-pam… pam-pam… pam-pam…’ thump of the emotionless, slow, stuttering waltz ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, a song that’s as uninspired and formulaic as could be.
But once in a while Neil really hits upon a gold mine: the opening ‘Tell Me Why’, with its sad, wistful and captivating chorus, somehow does manage to convey that gloomy, melancholic feeling of life’s uselessness, even if I’m not sure whether the lyrics really mean it. What could they mean, anyway? Neil isn’t an especially terrible lyricist, but I wonder how many people spent large portions of their lives trying to decipher the lines ‘Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself/When you’re old enough to repay but young enough to sell?’ Whatever, the chorus hits a very sensitive string in my soul, hardened as it is against Neil’s usual whinings.
Of course, the title track beats it to ‘Tell Me Why’ as the most incomprehensible, incoherent set of quasi-poetic visions in this record; the lyrics are clearly Dylan-inspired, but, unfortunately, the mood is as far from Bob as possible. Lucky for the song that it has a pretty, if not breathtaking, melody, and that Neil really is a great singer, which no one can deny; otherwise, I would easily have dismissed it as some kind of second-rate prog-imitating crap. Yeah, Neil succeeds in being as incomprehensible as Bob (that’s no big problem), but he utterly fails in conveying a specific mood with these lyrics.
So forget it and better pay some more attention to ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’, a ballad similar in tone but slightly more emotionally resonant. It sounds like its title suggests – some angry and sorrowful lyrics about a dead man lying down by the road and a blind man who lost his cane in the night, but anyway, ‘don’t let it bring you down/It’s only castles burning’, right? Arguably the most disturbing and ‘politically incorrect’ song on the album, even more so than ‘Southern Man’. I love hearing the hidden menace and irony in that one – at least we have something with an edge.
The rockers are also quite interesting, and certainly have nothing to do with each other. ‘When You Dance You Can Really Love’ is, in fact, a conventional pop rocker – with bland love lyrics and a near-dance beat, yet it is quite catchy in its dumbness, and in addition features some incredible piano work from Jack Nietzsche in the final ‘jam’ section. But, of course, the song that causes the most controversy is ‘Southern Man’, a song with some obvious references to slavery and the post-Civil War situation in the South but whose message is rather vague.
Seems like Young is mocking the traditional Southern ideology, but who really cares in this increasingly industrial world of ours? Me, I don’t give a damn ’bout those lyrics, but I sure like the guitar parts on there – a bit tame compared to some of the soloing on Young’s debut album, but certainly the most adrenaline-raising segment of this here record.
Taken together with two tasty short snippets (the jolly piano ditty ‘Till The Morning Comes’ and the countryish send-up ‘Cripple Creek Ferry’), these songs really make up for a normal listening – there’s almost nothing that would lift you off the ground and carry away into the clouds, but there’s at least enough entertainment value to allow you to sit through this without falling asleep. And well, at least it’s stylish. That’s already saying much.
Neil Young devotees will probably spend the next few weeks trying desperately to convince themselves that After The Gold Rush is good music. But they’ll be kidding themselves. For despite the fact that the album contains some potentially first rate material, none of the songs here rise above the uniformly dull surface.
In my listening, the problem appears to be that most of this music was simply not ready to be recorded at the time of the sessions. It needed time to mature. On the album the band never really gets behind the songs and Young himself has trouble singing many of them. Set before the buying public before it was done, this pie is only half-baked.
“Southern Man” is a good example. As a composition, it is possibly one of the best things Neil Young has ever written. In recent appearances with Crosby, Stills and Nash, the piece has had an overwhelmingly powerful impact on audiences. But the recording of “Southern Man” on After The Gold Rush fulfills very little of this promise. By today’s standards, the ensemble playing is sloppy and disconnected.
The piano, bass and drums search for each other like lovers lost in the sand dunes, but although they see each others’ footprints now and then, they never really come together. Young tries to recover the dynamics of the piece with his voice alone, but can’t quite make it: On this and the other really interesting tunes on the album — “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” and “I Believe In You” — the listener hears only a faint whisper of what the song will become.
Another disturbing characteristic of the record, oddly enough, is Young’s voice. In his best work Young’s singing contains genuine elements of pathos, darkness and mystery. If Kafka’s story “The Hunger Artist” could be made into an opera, I would want Neil Young to sing the title role. But on this album this intonation often sounds like pre-adolescent whining. The song “After The Gold Rush,” for instance, reminds one of nothing so much as Mrs. Miller moaning and wheezing her way through “I’m A Lonely Little Petunia In An Onion Patch.”
Apparently no one bothered to tell Neil Young that he was singing a half octave above his highest acceptable range. At that point his pathos becomes an irritating bathos. I can’t listen to it at all.
There are thousands of persons in this country who will buy and enjoy this record. More power to them, I suppose. But for me the test of an album is whether or not its quality is such that it allows you to grow into it a little more with each subsequent listening. And I find none of that quality here.
To the 70 or 80 people who wrote to Rolling Stone in total rage that I could be anything but 100% delighted with Deja Vu, I will simply say: this record picks up where Deja Vu leaves off.
Artistic freedom is a concept that appeals to all performers, musicians, and practitioners of the fine arts. Being a painter myself I can really sympathize with this aesthetic journey of one’s own design. A journey to do whatever you desire in your work. When your work embodies your vision, the feeling you get of knowing that it’s purely your design is majestic.
Sadly not everybody will experience this spiritual release with everything they labor over. Sometimes not everyone can relate to your mind’s eye and certainly nobody thinks like we artistic types do. We are a bit weird at times eh? And when they don’t think on the same wavelength as you do something horrific happens. Your work doesn’t sell. Your quest for individuality was a self-indulgent one, which yields no praise. Many artists fear this stigma and they do their work with other people in mind: Art for the public. They compromise their own dream for a chance at success.
Some artists however continue their “own” work no matter what the cost. Neil Young is one of these brave artists. His career is laden with examples of his disdain for those who try to chain his artistic freedom like his battle with Geffen and even the creation of this album, which Rolling Stone initially declared to be horrendously dull.
This album is far from dull. Though it contains a large amount of slow, piano based they sometimes serve as cool-down songs like Till The Morning Comes and Cripple Creek Ferry. Other tracks are emotionally proactive times for Young to share his introspective lyrics with his audience and play good old-fashioned music, without unnecessary distortion and experimentation. I Believe In You is a frank and open piano ballad accompanied with Young’s trademark higher pitched nasally voice. His voice however carries through the track in a surprisingly comfortable manner and blends with the music. Only Love Can Break Your Heart is almost identical but far less interesting. Birds is haunting track about a break up, hidden in a creative metaphor. Don’t Let It Bring You Down is a much more depressing song which follows a similar format. The lyrics are crushingly sad:
Old man lying
by the side of the road
With the lorries rolling by,
Blue moon sinking
from the weight of the load
And the building scrape the sky,
Cold wind ripping
down the allay at dawn
And the morning paper flies,
Dead man lying
by the side of the road
With the daylight in his eyes
The last three tracks can be viewed as the “standard” songs on this album and all three are very good. But they are completely daunted by the more signature tracks of the album. Tell Me Why is a track with some nice guitar with Young’s best country twang to it. When You Dance You Can Really Love is a great high-energy track with some of the “harder” guitar on the album. The lyrics take back-stage on this track and the musicianship on Young and co. Near the end of the track there is a total stop to the singing and the band just jams, with Young playing a quick solo, the piano becomes erratic, and it flows on in this manner until the songs final second. It’s a brilliant track. Oh, Lonesome Me is a depressing song with some pleasant harmonica and a country feel to it. A VERY country feel…this is however not a bad thing and the song is actually one of the better ones on the whole album.
Among this whole album however stands to tracks of mammoth proportions. They are the tracks, which stand above all others on the album and as two of Young’s greatest songs period. Yes I am talking about Southern Man and After The Gold Rush. Southern Man is a monumental politically fueled song that lashes out against the racists and segregationists of the south with an acid tongue. He really unloads a shotgun blast at the hypocrisy and injustice of so-called god fairing men.
better keep your head
what your good book said
gonna come at last
Now your crosses
are burning fast
your hair is golden brown
I’ve seen your black man
Swear by God
I’m gonna cut him down!
I heard screamin’
and bullwhips cracking
How long? How long?
Even though I am from the South I still hail this song as Young’s greatest musical achievement and agree with the way he depicts the racism of the South. How can these men sleep at night while they go to work in the morning as preachers, lawyers, teachers, etc. and secretly carry clansmen hoods in their back pockets? How in God’s name can they justify that? I’m not religious either but I’m sure God doesn’t think that the African Americans are less than human. The hatred of men like George Wallace and Jim Crowe will forever be branded on the South, and I am sure that some of these good old southern boy racists are still alive today. Some may claim they are not responsible and that they were brainwashed like Nazi Germany. What a convenient excuse to free them from their shame. This song is strong musically as well, with plenty of impressive guitar solos to boot.
After The Gold Rush is another song with a heavy meaning behind it. It’s a tear jerking piano ballad sung in an abnormally high pitch, even from Young, about how we developed countries have raped the land for all it’s worth. Urbanization runs it’s course too quickly and leaves too many damaging ramifications to our planet. A good American example of this is our rampage to the western coast of the U.S. and how we mowed down land, ravaged wildlife, and annihilated the Indians in the name of “Manifest Destiny”, the concept to control our continent no matter what the cost. Thank god we stopped before we took over Mexico and Canada as well. On a side note, I am sure this song really spoke to the hippie nation of its time as well.
Yet even through this criticism Neil Young stands as an immensely successful artist who never compromised his vision. Even Rolling Stone finally yielded to this albums power and rated it as the 71st greatest album of all time.