This is a trip into Neil Young’s most commercial period; one he seemed to quickly get his fill, and departed for rougher landscape.
You sort of need to know how Young operates, he often starts a project and can change direction, put those songs aside and write a new batch with a different set of musicians. Sometimes his albums can feel like a patchwork of styles and somewhat disjointed.
After the Gold Rush and Harvest also represent his Jack Nitzsche period, working with the piano player / arranger, who helped him on the orchestral backing and shaping the sound. I never thought Nitzsche got the credit for his contribution to Young’s music during this period, where Young’s sound was the most commercially accessible.
After the Gold Rush was released in 1970, a year after Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, his guitar epic with Crazy Horse. After leaving Buffalo Springfield, Young struggled to find his sound. In 1969, Young released his first solo album Neil Young, which was more like his work in Buffalo Springfield, big production and lush arrangements juxtaposed next to distorted, but polished guitar work. It failed to launch him into the solo career he had hoped, so he quickly released Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, a stripped-down series of guitar-driven rockers with extended solos. This album was the polar-opposite of Neil Young. Around this time, Young was approached to join Crosby, Stills & Nash on tour. This included Woodstock, and a journey into the studio to produce what became Deja Vu.
After the Gold Rush
After the Gold Rush started with members of Crazy Horse and augmented by Nitzsche, a teenage Nils Lofgren, and Greg Reeves and Stephen Stills from CSN&Y. Young carried over several songs he had begun recording with Crazy Horse, but got sidetracked by a screenplay written by actor Dean Stockwell and Herb Bermann called After the Gold Rush. Young offered to write the soundtrack, although the film never ended up being made, but he took some of the symbolism from the screenplay and that became much of the inspiration for the resulting album.
While Everybody Knows This is Nowhere is different from Neil Young; After the Gold Rush is very different from either of those two albums. After the Gold Rush, with the exception of “Southern Man” and “When You Dance I Can Really Love,” is a very tame, subdued album of love or discovery songs, rich in wistful imagery. After the Gold Rush and Harvest are probably Young’s most poetic lyrics, dripping with finely cut images and metaphors that jump from the song and scroll across the inside of your eyes. These two albums are Young’s Dylan period of drama songwriting.
Mostly written on piano and acoustic guitar, these are jangley, folk-inspired songs with some of Young’s strongest melodies. “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” is quite beautiful and aching, without being overtly sentimental.
“Southern Man” is a searing rocker critical of racism in the South. He would continue this chapter with “Alabama” from his next album and the response from the band Lynyrd Skynyrd. More on that later.
All songs written by Neil Young unless indicated.
|1.||“Tell Me Why“||2:54|
|2.||“After the Gold Rush“||3:45|
|3.||“Only Love Can Break Your Heart“||3:05|
|5.||“Till the Morning Comes”||1:17|
|1.||“Oh, Lonesome Me“||Don Gibson||3:47|
|2.||“Don’t Let It Bring You Down“||2:56|
|4.||“When You Dance I Can Really Love“||4:05|
|5.||“I Believe in You“||3:24|
|6.||“Cripple Creek Ferry”||1:34|
After the Gold Rush, while gathering some mixed reviews, was a big success, reaching number eight on Billboard. Over the years, this album is ranked on many top 100 album lists.
This change of direction, after his previous album and work with CSN&Y, coupled with the lighter, more country imbibed musical style, might have been the reason for the critical question mark. Regardless, the album stands as a creative and musical success.
Harvest, was recorded through much of 1971, at various locations across the country, and in England. Young was in Nashville to tape The Johnny Cash Show for television and ended up recording a number of tracks there, hooking up with some of the area’s finest session musicians.
In London for some concerts, he recorded the orchestral backing for “A Man Needs a Maid” and “There’s a World.” An acoustic solo song, “The Needle and the Damage Done” was recorded at UCLA. He also set up a mobile recording studio at his ranch in Northern California for several tracks like “Alabama” and “Words.” Young’s recording style was to strike while the creative iron was hot.
After “Southern Man” and “Alabama,” Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote “Sweet Home Alabama” in response to Young, mentioning him by name in one verse. Young took the criticism well, even saying it was deserved. One might think this might have put these artists at odds, but surprisingly, Young and members of Lynyrd Skynyrd had an amiable relationship.
During the making of After the Gold Rush and Harvest, Young’s personal life meandered through two relationships, which he admits influence the writing for these albums.
All songs by Neil Young.
|1.||“Out on the Weekend”||4:35|
|3.||“A Man Needs a Maid“||4:05|
|4.||“Heart of Gold“||3:07|
|5.||“Are You Ready for the Country?“||3:33|
|2.||“There’s a World”||2:59|
|4.||“The Needle and the Damage Done” (recorded in concert January 30, 1971)||2:03|
|5.||“Words (Between the Lines of Age)”||6:40|
Reading some of the reviews of the album, the reaction was again, very mixed. There were some glowing reviews and others that felt like Young just recycled ideas. The album’s success, his only number one charting album, and the single “Heart of Gold,” which also reached number one, was a statement that the fans warmed to Young’s direction. So what did Young do, he abruptly changed direction again.
Young would embark on a very dark period in his music. Danny Whitten, a member of Crazy Horse, died of a heroin overdose, after he was dismissed from the band. One of Young’s road crew, Bruce Berry, also died of a drug overdose. These events bored deep into Young’s psyche.
Over the next several years, Young recorded Tonight’s the Night, On the Beach and Time Fades Away, projects of varied opinion. Young was a prolific writer, seemingly always at work. He recorded Tonight’s the Night very quickly but it was refused by his record company, so he moved on to On the Beach. When not recording, he toured constantly, solo concerts and band treks. During one tour, he recorded Time Fades Away, a live album of unrecorded songs, although he had been playing some in concert. On this tour, Young abruptly changed some members of the backing band, as he was unimpressed with the shows, not a good omen for the tour. The resulting album, was not a commercial success, but which developed a cult following, went out of print and it was 45 years before it appeared as an official CD release in the U.S. It is one of my favorites and I resorted to purchasing an unofficial CD, simply to get a copy, my vinyl was worn out years ago. These three albums represented his ragged period where his songs and production allowed rough edges and a minimum of commercial polish. Some folks might think After the Gold Rush and Harvest lacked polish. Listen to Tonight’s the Night and get back to me.
If you are a fan of Neil Young, chances are you owned After the Gold Rush or Harvest at one time. These were the first Neil Young albums in my collection. These songs were accessible and they influenced my songwriting. Young often remarked that this period represented his “straight down the middle of the road” period, so he had to pull it off the road and into the ditch, where life was more interesting. Maybe so, but the time along the centerline gave us some great, reflective music.