Tuesday, July 21, 2009

My Back Pages: Neil Young's After the Gold Rush (1970)

Amidst teenage angst and cloudy, newspaper-smudged skies, I hopped into my Jeep Cherokee one rainy October afternoon. I flipped on the radio, listened to whatever middling crap 102.1 the Edge was trying to peddle as "alternative" music that day, and quickly flipped it back off. The afternoon was too grim to be accompanied only by my Jeep's metallic whir, so I fished around my car for a new soundtrack. Only two tapes were available: Ricky Nelson's Greatest Hits and Neil Young's After the Gold Rush. I chose the latter.

And it's a good thing I did. Though nothing against Ricky Nelson's cheeky tunes, NY's dark, insular 1970 masterpiece synced up perfectly with my changing musical tastes and sensibilities. I popped Side B into the tape deck and was immediately overwhelmed by the desolate, weary "Oh, Lonesome Me." Young takes Don Gibson's tears-in-your-beer country classic and slows it to a stumbling crawl, buoyed only by Young's whining harmonica and plaintive voice.

Despite the album's gloomy tone, it is wrapped in that early '70s warmth afforded by recording straight to analog tape. In other words, it's not bleak--there's a certain humanistic streak running through, from hearing Young's fingers gently find the piano chords on "Birds" or the gaps of empty space between drummer Ralph Molina's snare and hi-hat snaps on the plodding "I Believe In You."

The fact that I listened to it first on cassette only increased my love for it. Like vinyl before it, cassettes force you to break up the album in two parts. Each side is sequenced brilliantly, and it was only after devouring the sublime Side B that I persuaded myself to turn the tape over. "Tell Me Why" opens the album with these lines:

Sailing heart-ships/through broken harbors/out on the waves in the night
Still the searcher/must ride the dark horse/racing alone in his fright

Young's strummed guitar and haunting lyrics immediately suck the listener in, setting an almost autumnal tone right from the start. Most albums start with a bang, but Gold Rush somberly takes its time in its first half, running through three ballads before arriving at the incendiary "Southern Man." The first half closes with one of two minute-and-a-half pieces that add breezy, carefree shots that mesh nicely with the surrounding expanse.

This is by far my favorite Neil Young record because it's fairly different from most of his others: every song interacts to serve the record as a whole; the lead guitar playing is atonal but also somewhat restrained; and Neil uses some great backing vocalists (among them Stephen Stills) to complement his high warble. It's also a mysterious record; the lyrics are cryptic and the arrangements and songwriting are decidedly more obtuse than the straight-up country rock he would employ on later releases.

I wore this tape out my junior year of high school. Sometimes I would just get in my car and drive all over Dallas just to listen to it; it was that good. Gold Rush quickly ushered me out of my punk rock phase and reintroduced me to my first love: good country music. I quickly became a devoted music enthusiast soon after that discovery because of the way the record made me feel, and most of my musical acquisitions are based on a certain emotional scale that I first acquired via Neil.

Is there an album that inspired you in such a way? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Support the artist. Buy the album here.

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