Sunday, October 21, 2012
Classic Albums: Neil Young, After the Gold Rush
My emotions have long been tied to changes in the seasons, and the onset of autumn probably triggers memories and associations more intense than any other time of year. There are certain albums that I seldom listen to outside of this time but play constantly when the leaves are falling, and one of them is Neil Young's After the Gold Rush.
I first acquired it completely by accident. At age sixteen in the autumn of 1991 I went to the Musicland at the local mall -the only record store in my isolated home town- hoping to get a copy of Neil Young's Harvest on tape. (At that time I bought back-catalog stuff on cassette because it was much less expensive than Musicland's CD prices, and had the added advantage that I could play it in my car's tape deck.) I found Harvest, but it was on one of those two-for-one tapes with an album on each side. The other album was After the Gold Rush, which I considered to be a nice bonus.
As much as I enjoyed Harvest at the time, over the years I have actually developed a closer relationship with After the Gold Rush. To me, it's the sound of dead leaves scraped across the street by a biting autumn breeze. It's an album that I can only play at night, perhaps sparked by an evening in the aforementioned fall of 1991 when I played the tape on a boom box while I took a leisurely bath and it sounded perfect. Listening to music in the bath was one of my favorite ways to escape and reflect back then, and while "Don't Let It Bring You Down" played, I felt that song's bleakness in my bones. Other songs sank their hooks into me, too. In those days I was loner who was misanthropic even by the standards of a teenage misfit, so I took on "Lonesome Me" as a kind of anthem. "Everybody's goin' out and havin' fun/ I'm a fool for staying home and having none" was a pretty accurate description of my life back then, as evidenced by my tendency to lock myself in the bathroom and listen to albums from the seventies.
It's hard to explain, but the whole album sounds like it's made to be played only at night, and to be listened to alone. The album's title implies a sense of loss, and the cover image, with its use of photograph negative and the iron fence and brick wall in the background, sets a lonely mood. The sounds themselves have a weighty darkness to them, from the stark, echoing piano lines at foundation of all the songs to the stabbing feedback on tracks like "Southern Man" and "When You Dance I Can Really Love." The former sounds pretty dated nowadays in its over-simplified attempt at topical profundity. However, it has an amazing electric guitar accompaniment and a torrid beat. "When You Dance" uses similar guitar fireworks, but with a personally uplifting message, not didactic political posturing.
"Southern Man"and the title track are probably the most often-played songs from this album on classic rock radio despite their display of one of Young's major weak points: his "message" songs have corny, hippy-in-a-cannabis-fog lyrics. The title track manages somehow to overcome references to "mother nature's silver seed" through its beautiful melody and Young's affecting alto singing. It still pulls at my heartstrings despite my wincing at the words; there are few other songs that have that effect on me.
Over the years, I have gravitated more to the love songs on this album, which are quite beautiful. "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" lays out a hard truth of life with a lilting melody, and "Birds" never fails to lift me up. Best of all, in my opinion, is "I Believe in You," is the kind of honest love song you never hear on the radio. As the penultimate song on the album it sets up the silly, hopeful "Cripple Creek Ferry," pointing to a light at the end of a dark tunnel. It's perfectly suited for those chilly nights when the weight of the past is on my mind and I need a little misery for company but a little salve for my worried mind, too.