Tag Archives: After The Goldrush

Into the Mystic – Van Morrison

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably aware of the veteran US rock critic Robert Christgau. He’s practically the last of his generation still doing what he does at anything like the pace he worked at in his youth. He wrote for most of career for the Village Voice, but he’s also contributed to Spin, Creem, Esquire, Playboy and Rolling Stone, and more recently online for MSN’s music site, where his writing was the only thing on the site that wasn’t half-arsed. Willfully eccentric though his views may sometimes be and gnomic as his two-sentence capsule reviews often are, he’s the originator of much of what we talk about when we talk about rock criticism. His reviews carry weight because he’s heard more or less every notable release since the late 1960s (certainly up to the start of the internet age).

I very seldom share his opinions. I love loads of records he’s panned (for example, David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name), and find his enthusiasm for, say, the New York Dolls or modern Bob Dylan somewhat baffling (‘Love & Theft’ and Modern Times both A+ records? Hell, no!). But there’s a few records to which he’s given A+ reviews down the years that I agree with him wholeheartedly about: After the Goldrush by Neil Young, Paul Simon’s self-titled debut solo album, Television’s Marquee Moon, and our subject today, Van Morrison’s Moondance.

Christgau’s definition of an A+ record is: ‘an organically conceived masterpiece that repays prolonged listening with new excitement and insight. It is unlikely to be marred by more than one merely ordinary cut’.

I prefer a simpler definition. A record that couldn’t be improved upon by subtracting or adding anything to it. Perhaps it has a song or two that are a notch below the best on the record, but still, the whole is stronger for the presence of them than it would be without.

Most of the records I think of as perfect were not conceived as major commercial statements: Judee Sill, Joni’s Blue, Paul Simon, John Martyn’s Inside Out, Fred Neil – these are small, intimate, personal records, not ones that aimed for the mass market or tried to make big, generalised statements. When you try to appeal to everyone, it’s very hard to make an album that’s a coherent, satisfying listen all the way through. Even the Beatles only got near it once, with Revolver, which is damn close to perfect, but is perhaps let down very slightly by a couple of weakish Harrisongs (Love You To and I Want To Tell You) and the inherent difficulty of making songs as disparate as Taxman, Eleanor Rigby, I’m Only Sleeping and Love You To live together on one album, and that’s just the first four songs!

Moondance is an exception to this. John Lennon once described Imagine as the sugarcoated version of his solo debut, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Well, Moondance is the sugarcoated version of Astral Weeks. It has all questing, Celtic romanticism of Astral Weeks, but with condensed running times, repeated choruses, horn charts you can sing along to, tight performances and the sort of flawless engineering (by a young Shelly Yakus, his first (!) lead engineer credit) and production you just don’t come across any more. It’s the sort of music that puts a smile on your face, the sort of music that should play in pubs during long, damp afternoons, the sort of album of such sustained quality that picking one song as a highlight is close to impossible.

But if I had to – and for the purposes of this post, I did – I’d choose Into the Mystic, which I’ve loved since I first heard it for John Klingberg’s bass line, Van’s passionate, joyful vocal, John Platania’s guitar arpeggios in the bridges, and those glorious saxophones (I love their low-pitched, rising response when Van sings ‘And when that foghorn blows’ – so simple, so inspired). Astral Weeks has become the canonical Van Morrison record, the favourite of critics, poets and budding songwriters with a literary bent. Moondance is the Radio 2 staple, the people’s choice. This time, just once, I reckon the people are right.

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Don’t Let It Bring You Down – Neil Young

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.

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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.