ALBUM (1970)
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LIFE

Rewind album: After the Goldrush, by Neil Young

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 January, 2014, 3:47pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 January, 2014, 3:47pm

After the Goldrush
Neil Young
Reprise

The title track of Canadian rocker Neil Young's third solo album has provoked much debate among his fans since its release. After the Goldrush is a beautiful, haunting, heartfelt ballad sung in a key that's slightly too high for Young's range, and accompanied by a graceful piano. A gentle interlude on a flugelhorn adds a wistful dimension. But what is the song about?

The three verses, which share a poetic quality, are enigmatic: the first has a medieval theme, and features the song's defining line "Look at mother nature on the run/In the 1970s", a reference which was updated as Young performed the song live throughout his career.

Verse two has an apocalyptic feel, with the narrator "Lying in a burned out basement", where he's "Thinking about what a friend had said" and "Hoping it was a lie". The final verse is pure science fiction, with a spaceship arriving to "Fly mother nature's silver seed/To a new home in the sun".

The song would seem to contain an environmental warning, but Young would not confirm this. All that is known is that After the Goldrush, along with fellow track Cripple Creek Ferry, was composed for a film by actor Dean Stockwell. But the film was never made, the script disappeared and no one could remember what it was about, other than that it was esoteric and had a science-fiction theme. So the ideas behind the verses will probably never be known.

When After the Goldrush was first heard in 1970, the critical reception was mixed. Rolling Stone magazine's Langdon Winner dismissed the whole album as "a pie half-baked" in a review that is sometimes cited as the most misjudged piece of criticism to appear in the magazine. The record became one of the prolific Young's most revered works.

The album does have a raw unfinished quality, which contrasts with the increasingly slick sounds of late-1960s rock, including those of Young's own outfit, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSNY). The piano, played by guitarist Nils Lofgren, later of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, is rough and ready, Young's vocals are unpolished, and there's little sonic modulation.

That was, however, the point. Young, who had achieved fame as a member of 1960s band Buffalo Springfield, released two well-regarded solo albums, and become cool and credible as a member of CSNY, saw the record as a chance to experiment. Following on from his previous LP Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, in which he used a test vocal track on the finished product, Young chose musical authenticity over technical prowess. This is even reflected in the cover shot, an off-the-cuff photo by Joel Bernstein that was so out of focus it had to be solarised to disguise the mistake.

Richard James Havis