Each of Neil Young’s first five solo records (Neil Young, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, After the Goldrush, Harvest and Time Fades Away) reveals a different side to Young and his songwriting, and taken in totality they point to all the paths he’d explore in the future. Well, nearly all: there’s nothing at this stage that predicts Trans, on which Neil and Crazy Horse attempt to do Kraftwerk.
Of that initial burst, After the Goldrush and Harvest are the two most similar records – predominantly acoustic, with songs that are mainly concise (no 12-minute guitar jams). But the two albums have, in fact, significant differences in attitude, arrangement and feel. Harvest is a big-budget studio record with expensive Nashville session players and the London Symphony Orchestra. After the Goldrush was largely recorded in Young’s makeshift home studio in Topanga Canyon with a four-piece band: Young on acoustic guitar, Ralph Molina from Crazy Horse on drums, Nils Lofgren (long-time sideman for Young and Bruce Springsteen) on piano and Greg Reeves (Motown and James Brown) on bass. It’s spare, raw and dry: no echo, no delays, no solos, no frills. It takes a lot of confidence in your songs to resist the temptation to fill them up with stuff (and god knows there’s a lot of choices you can make if you’re in a maximalist, more-is-more kind of mood), but it’s been a very long time since Neil Young’s been short of confidence in himself and his art. The French horn on the title track is the only lead instrument, and one of the few overdubs. Even the cuts that were recorded in real studios* with extra musicians (Stephen Stills, Danny Whitten, Billy Talbot, Jack Nitzsche) sound lo-fi and sparse.
After the Goldrush is the record where Young starts singing like the public expect Neil Young to sing, pitching his vocals up to the top of his chest range, and starts writing the songs that are most closely associated with him by casual listeners rather than Young fanatics: After the Goldrush, Don’t Let it Bring You Down, Only Love Can Break Your Heart and Southern Man (to which Sweet Home Alabama was written as a response).
My personal favourite is Don’t Let It Bring You Down. I love how integrated it is; Young has a really impressive knack of making his guitar and the piano feel almost like one instrument, while at the same time making the guitar and the drums feel like one instrument; a lot has been said about Young’s noise-mongering electric guitar playing, but not nearly enough about his skill as an acoustic rhythm player. I love the rhythm of the chord changes in the intro (One, two, three, One, two, three, four, five).
Most of all though, I love how naked this song is, how much presence it has. When I listen to it, the spatial and temporal distance between him there and then and me here and now are dissolved and I’m there in that Topanga Canyon basement while Young sings in his fragile tenor and Ralph Molina bangs his cardboard drum kit.
Neil Young, early 1970s, with a Strat this time
*After the Goldrush figures prominently in the promotional hoopla for Dave Grohl’s Sound City movie. I haven’t seen it yet, so I would guess that perhaps After The Goldrush was mixed at Sound City, as McDonough is pretty clear in Shakey that Birds, Oh Lonesome Me, I Believe in You and When You Dance I Can Really Love were tracked with Crazy Horse at Sunset Sound, and the rest were recorded at the home-studio sessions.