Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”

Neil Young "After the Gold Rush" album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to Neil Young’s album “After the Gold Rush” from 1970. Other than the title track, this album was new to me. Growing up, I heard his earlier album “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” from my parent’s CD collection. I loved his hard guitar playing style and still do. I remember seeing him play with Pearl Jam on the 1993 MTV Music Awards. I was excited by this mad man that looked like Stephen King’s cousin taking a break from tilling the garden to beat the shit out of a guitar on stage. I still love that wild vibrato-bar abusing solo. The chorus of “Rockin’ In the Free World” repeated in my head for weeks.

“Southern Man” grew on me the fastest, probably because it’s the more rocking track. The song takes the Southern United States to task for the age of slavery and the continued gap between white and black; Even if slavery has ended, the “white mansions” still stand in contrast to the “little shacks.” This because wealthy white families were still living on benefits of the slavery that left black families with a poor start.

The two verses each consist of three rhyming lines, the middle line being a slant rhyme, followed by a non-rhyming two line refrain. The chorus has four lines, two couplets. All of the rhymes consist of monosyllabic words: head/said, last/fast, black/shacks/back, brown/round/down. The voice of the song is that of an outside observer, calling out debts unpaid and hypocrisy.

Southern man better keep your head
Don’t forget what your good book said
Southern change gonna come at last
Now your crosses are burning fast

“Oh Lonesome Me” is actually a cover of a Don Gibson song. Presumably audiences in 1970 would recognize this country song. Neil Young certainly played it much slower, giving it a more lonesome feel. He certainly wasn’t the first or the last to cover it. Elements of Young’s song reminded me of a much later song “Truck On” by Simple Kid from 2003.

The song has a very slow country-blues feel, coming from the acoustic guitar, piano, electric guitar, and especially the harmonica. I just really love the sound of this song. It rolls and hangs, pulling itself a long. The piano here, as on much of the album, is used a rhythm instrument playing chords. The chord progression also brings that lonesome blues feel: I-IV-I-IV-I-IV-I-IV-I-v-I-IV-iv-VIIā™­-IV-I-I-IV. It’s interesting how that I-V-I-IV section uses a minor v and the IV falls to a minor iv; This makes the typically strong blues progression sound meek and worn, that is.. lonesome. Young’s version feels more raw and vulnerably emotion making the earlier versions seem cautiously upbeat and jaunty.

The title track, “After the Gold Rush,” seems to tell of deterioration of the planet leading to mankind evacuating. Though, it seems more like either a poorly planned escape or an involuntary eviction, since their new home is in the sun. The track opens with tender piano, with a gently bouncing left-hand bassline and syncopated chords on the right. Except for a vocals and eerily sorrowful french-horn solo, the piano is the only instrument on the track. The piano even takes rests, making the accompaniment sparse. This enhances the dreamlike narrative of the lyrics, by allowing focus to fall solely on the vocals.

The middle-verse reminds me of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, especially “Five Years“. Bowie started recording that album a year after Young released “After the Gold Rush.” When Bowie wrote, “News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying; Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying,” was he listening to Young?

I was lying in a burned out basement
With the full moon in my eyes
I was hoping for replacement
When the sun burst though the sky
There was a band playing in my head
And I felt like getting high
I was thinking about what a friend had said
I was hoping it was a lie

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