Despite being Canadian, Neil Young is frequently hailed as the conscience of America. Perhaps it’s his slight detachment, his imaginative and geographical distance from the US that has allowed him to make such acute observations about its political, cultural, and historical legacy. He wouldn’t be alone in this respect. The author of Lolita, one of the most insightful analyses of American culture in the 1950s, was, after all, Russian.
Young’s discography is littered with songs that cast a critical eye over the American landscape. Take ‘Alabama’ from his iconic 1972 album Harvest. Widely regarded as a follow up to Young’s 1970 hit ‘Southern Man’ from After The Gold Rush, this slice of angsty folk-rock sees Young bemoan the racism of the southern states. The message was largely ignored, but it did prompt Lynyrd Skynyrd to write their Southern rock classic ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, in which they seek to counter Young’s claims: “Well I heard Mister Young sing about her / Well I heard ol’ Neil put her down”.
For Lynyrd Skynrd, Alabama represents a lost idyll away from the hubbub of the urban jungle. Young himself was fixated on the idea that, somewhere in America, lay a rural landscape of such simplicity and purity to serve as an antidote to the overwhelming fakeness of modern life. This recurring conservative theme is especially apparent in Young’s 1975 track ‘Albuquerque’, in which he ponders renting a car and driving from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Santa Fe. Why? Well, glorious isolation of course. He longs to be “independent from the scene” and therefore untainted by it. His plan is to roll a joint, get super stoned and eat some “fried eggs and country ham”. America truly is the land of the free.
Featuring swooping lap-steel guitar, wheezing harmonica lines, and a hefty dose of road trip nostalgia, ‘Albuquerque’ is classic Neil Young. At the opposite end of the spectrum sits his 2020 track ‘Florida’, possibly the strangest song he’s ever released. This spoken-word piece sees Young recount a weird walk through Florida, during which he sees men flying gliders overhead. One of them crashes into a building and falls to the ground, crushing a couple walking hand in hand below. It’s weird as hell and is made all the stranger by the shimmering hum of someone rubbing their finger around the rim of a wine glass in the background. The effect was apparently inspired by Jack Nitzsche’s soundtrack for One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest. The composer produced many of Young’s songs and was a close friend. ‘Florida’ was originally recorded sometime between June 1974 and January 1975, alongside its Homegrown album mate ‘Kansas’, both of which were written in the wake of Young’s breakup with actress Carrie Snodgress.
Young’s more experimental numbers benefit from the fact that they don’t carry the same overbearing moral arrogance of tracks like ‘Alabama’. His 1973 song ‘LA’, on the other hand, is undeniably – perhaps intentionally – didactic. In it, Young warns of a coming apocalypse that will destroy the city, which, in his telling, is transformed into a sort of modern-day Babylon populated by people too busy clogging the freeways with their muscle cars to heed his warning. “Will I finally be heard by you?” he asks to no reply. Despite being written nearly 50 years ago, Young’s vision of a world driving headlong into environmental collapse is more relevant than ever.
Of course, some of Young’s tracks weren’t meant to be interpreted at all. ‘Last Trip to Tulsa’ is a fine example. The track is almost entirely impenetrable – a surreal swirl of symbolic fragments in which Young seems to be recounting past lives. In the first of these, Young identifies as a cab driver. In the last, he seems to be embarking on an LCD-induced trip down the freeway, barrelling towards Tulsa in a psychotropic reverie.
Finally, ‘Philidelphia’. Written for the Jonathon Demme film Philidelphia, starring Tom Hanks as a lawyer with AIDS, this 1993 track was originally intended to open the film. However, Demme felt it would be more suitable as a closing track. Demme later explained why he thought Young would be the best person for the job: “I thought, what we need is the most up-to-the-minute, guitar-dominated American-rock anthem about injustice to start the movie off. Who can do that? Neil Young can do that.”
Neil Young songs about America:
- ‘Alabama’ – Harvest (1972)
- ‘Albuquerque’ – Tonight’s The Night (1975)
- ‘Florida’ – Homegrown (2020)
- ‘Kansas’ Homegrown 2020
- ‘L.A’ – Time Fades Away (1973)
- ‘Last Trip To Tulsa’ – Neil Young Archives Volume II: 1972–1976 (2020)
- ‘Philidelphia’ – Philadelphia Soundtrack (1993)