Counterbalance No. 44: Neil Young's 'After the Gold Rush'

This special morning brings another sun—and another edition of Counterbalance. This week, it's Neil Young's 1970 masterpiece After the Gold Rush. It’s No. 44 on Acclaimed Music’s All-Time Greatest Albums list. Eric Klinger and Jason Mendelsohn have a listen.

Neil Young

After the Gold Rush

Label: Reprise
US Release Date: 1970-08-31

Klinger: It's curious that After the Gold Rush is Neil Young's first visit to the Great List. Not only has he been recording for over 40 years, but I think it’s safe to say that just about everybody likes at least some aspect of Neil Young's music. For the grunge/alt-rock types, there's his Crazy Horse output. There's loads of acoustic strummery for the folkies and alt-country types. Non-alt-anything people always have his Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young/Harvest work. For people who like records sung by robots, there's Trans. Why, even your beloved Radiohead is on the Neil Young trolley, Mendelsohn.

Much of what Young has done throughout his career (Trans notwithstanding) can be found crystallized right here on After the Gold Rush. In fact, that becomes clear from the opening track, "Tell Me Why"—just listening to that makes you realize just what a difference there was between CSN and CSNY. As a template for what was to become a career, this is a pretty remarkable album. So remark away, my friend.

Mendelsohn: I don't know, dude. I'm a little leery of this record. The thing that sticks out in my mind is the fact Rolling Stone panned this record after it came out. And this is coming from the Rolling Stone that was still a semi-reputable source for music criticism. But then, ten years later, they did a complete reversal and hailed After the Gold Rush as one of the highlights of the decade, effectively drinking the Kool-Aid, and joining the chorus of praise. I want to know what happened. Who got to them? Was it the FBI? The aliens? Reptoids? Because right off the bat, I was inclined to agree with the Nixon-era Rolling Stone. Not worthy. So pour me a cup of Kool-Aid, Klinger, I'm getting thirsty.

Klinger: You're always thirsty. But even though I've developed a reasonably solid appreciation for this disc (especially after that delightful afternoon with the Reptoids), I'm not sure I'm the right guy to be ladling out anything. Again, I believe that After the Gold Rush is Neil Young in quintessence, with all of the pieces and parts that make up his sound captured in one place. You want minor-key electric rantings? "Southern Man", baby. Sweet folkie stylings? "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" is the tune for you, sir. Apocalyptic doom-saying juxtaposed with delicate piano? The quite-nearly-perfect title track. Young's own perverse appreciation for roots music, which he's returned to again and again throughout his career, is on display as he transforms Don Gibson's jaunty 1958 country classic "Oh Lonesome Me" into the moper's lament that it probably always was under the surface.

It's all in there, and I maintain that what really happened in the example you describe is that Neil Young beat Rolling Stone by forcing their hand. Throughout the 1970s, Young worked actively to defy everyone's expectations. After the Gold Rush gave way to the more commercial Harvest, and after that all bets were off. He proved himself as a commercial force, and then demonstrated his commitment to his muse time and again. If he had just faded away (pun intended), the critics could have forgotten all about him. But by the end of the 1970s, no critic could deny Neil Young the artist, and the safest place for them to land was right here—After the Gold Rush hits the sweet spot between his "popular" work and his "difficult" work.

Mendelsohn: So what, is this entry just a case of the critics refusing to take either the high road or the low road? Middling, if you will, with indecision on where to place an artist due to his wildly varied output? Is After the Gold Rush just the place holder for the genre that is Neil Young?

At this point in the list we are transitioning out of the iconic albums and starting to see some interesting records pop up, the type of records that don't necessarily make sense by themselves but for whatever reason are highly regarded enough to push them into the top 100. Maybe I need another cup of Kool-Aid and a couple more spins through this album.

Klinger: You're right that the albums at this level are less culturally game-changing, but they still serve as solid representations of the form, even beyond their own merits. I'm a relative latecomer to Neil Young's work, having opted out of the full-on Neil embracing that went on in about the mid-1990s (no way was I going to let Eddie Vedder boss me around). For a long time I used to say that I understood that Neil Young was a great artist, but I had virtually no interest in ever listening to his music. Obviously I've softened on that point, and that happened mainly as a result of recognizing that the so-called outliers in his career were part of a bigger picture—that yes, there kind of is a genre that is Neil Young.

While I appreciate much of Young's output now, and I think After the Gold Rush is indeed a particularly compelling centerpiece to the genre, I can also understand why some people are put off by his work. So I reckon that before I can dispense any flavored drink mix, I think I should know why you need it. What about After the Gold Rush isn't moving you?

Mendelsohn: There's nothing I can put my finger on. Perhaps I just don't know how to listen to Neil Young yet, because I'm still not on the Neil Young bandwagon. The songs I can connect with, "Southern Man" and "When You Dance You Can Really Love", are the songs with a harder edge and satisfy my rock lust. I even have an ironic appreciation for the title track because Young makes an allusion to the Reptoids and their "silver spaceships". The rest of the album seems to come off as too folksy. Plug your guitar back in, Neil.

Klinger: Ah, see now, I have the exact opposite reaction to Neil Young in general and After the Gold Rush in particular. Call me a softie—you wouldn’t be the first—but I usually find that his electric excursions come across as too minor-key and dirge-like for my tastes. I know Young's a nut for those skronk-dafied guitar jams, but I can’t help thinking it gets in the way of his true gift, which is his way with a melody. Much like Bob Dylan, Neil Young has a not-conventionally-attractive voice, and both of them have an ability to write the kind of indelible melodies that make their songs pop even when the singer's larynx falls short. Plus those electric tracks usually mean that a long guitar solo is coming, and I tend to view long guitar solos the same way I view lengthy battle scenes in summer blockbusters: it's going to end eventually, and everything's going to turn out OK, and knowing this I’ll be darned if my mind doesn't start to wander the whole time it's going on.

And my appreciation for the title track is anything but ironic. It might have some odd references to science fiction-y stuff, but to me it evokes perfectly the circa-1970 shift between the naiveté of the hippie dream and the paranoia that would come to strike even deeper. And again, that melody. (Of course, you'd think that once the Harry Dean Stanton post-apocalyptic film deal fizzled out that Neil might have rethought the spaceship lyrics, but then he wouldn't really be Neil Young, then, would he?)

Maybe if you gave a listen to Thom Yorke singing "After the Gold Rush" you might get filled with Kool-Aidy goodness?

Mendelsohn: Your dislike for the things I like about this album is helpful. I can now think of some of Young's material as a sort of proto-alterna-rock and in that light, this album starts to make much more sense to me. If I had simply thought of it as folk-based classic rock in the same realm of Dylan or CSN&Y, I may never have been able to get a grasp on it. Plus, I like well-choreographed fight scenes and long guitar solos. Hell, I'll sit through an hour of exposition and subtitles just for five good minutes of someone getting punched in the face. So sign me up for more of that. And if Thom Yorke is Neil Young fan (which must make him a Reptoid as well) then I stand little chance of resisting.

In the end, I think this is one of those albums that is going to grow on me. One day I'll wake up with "After the Gold Rush" spinning in my head and I'll be a Neil Young fan. Strike that. I've just been informed by my kindly reptile overlords that today is in fact that day, and from now on I will fully appreciate all facets of Neil Young, be it his folksy, warbling melody or his minor key skronk. Do I have to enjoy Trans as well? No? Thank you my benevolent lizard rulers, you are as wise as you are powerful.

Suddenly I'm not thirsty anymore.

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