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Ranking the songs on Neil Young’s masterpiece ‘After the Gold Rush’

@TomTaylorFO

After the high of Woodstock, Joni Mitchell described the comedown as follows: “There were so many sinking, but I had to keep thinking I could make it through the waves. You watched that high of the hippie thing descend into drug depression. Right after Woodstock, then we went through a decade of basic apathy where my generation sucked its thumb and then just decided to be greedy and pornographic.”

After The Gold Rush seems to find itself on the precipice of the era and soars as a paean clinging to the prelapsarian innocence of the past whilst tearing unflinchingly into the future. The result is a masterpiece that ranks among the greatest records ever made. Mellow and visceral in equal alchemical measure, the record packs as much of a vibrant punch as it does distant pillow-propped contentment. It is a record that proves bliss doesn’t have to be ignorant, and it certainly doesn’t have to be without the odd rollicking curveball either. 

Below, I have attempted the frankly thankless task of ranking the album. However, seeing as though it was a near-impossible feat that rendered much of the ranking arbitrary, I ask you to view it as more of a journey through the gilded masterpiece and a send-up to the tracks contained therein. Enjoy…

Ranking After the Gold Rush from great to greatest:

‘Oh, Lonesome Me’

It is a measure of the syncopated harmony of the album that the slightest intentional dissonance in the melody of ‘Oh, Lonesome Me’ registers as an effective mid-album wake-up to sustain full attention with a bristling blow.

There isn’t a bad word to say about this track other than it doesn’t electrify or live on in the mind like a lot of the others. If that’s the best critique that can be offered then the quality of the album we’re dealing with should be pretty clear.

‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’

Listening back to the album as this piece is written, one of the messages it rams down your throat half a century later is that not enough bands embark on harmonies these days. The sound that CSNY, The Band and many others were crafting is sorely missing.

While the track might register as the first study of ‘Southern Man’ and as such suffers, on any other album it would soar. Sadly, however, it just can’t quite live up to its big brother.  It just doesn’t quite have the same heady unflinching intent.

‘Cripple Creek Ferry’

It is not widely known that After the Gold Rush was intended as a soundtrack for a film of the same name that never ended up being made. The script has since been lost to the sands of time and with it, the hope of any revival.

This short ditty is perhaps the only track on the record that suffers from the loss of context that went with the failure of the film to materialise. It’s a great little track, but it’s not one you’ll pour over and get overly excited about when you’re back in your kitchen after a bellyful of beer… you’ll be too busy looking for the stylus to play the whole thing over again.

‘Till the Morning Comes’

Following the barnstorm of ‘Southern Man’ the sweet lullaby intro of ‘Till the Morning Comes’ lands as somewhat of a shock and then it beguiles in an instant. In only just over a minute it’s all over all too quickly, but you’d never wish for it to be longer in a million years for fear of messing up with its perfectly woven fabric. 

A lesser artist may well have crafted an alchemical melody like this from the ether amid the recording sessions and thought ‘Wow, I’ll save this and make it my opus on the next record’, but it is a mark of the bravura of this brilliant album that Young rightly follows his whims and lays it down as and when it came to him. 

‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’

The power and uniqueness of Young’s falsetto voice has often been lauded, but what’s truly striking about his music is that he even has a recognisable strum. I could even have him tune my guitar to within a mouse’s fart of how he has it and yet the chord would just never ring out the same. 

That very singular guitar sound is on full display with ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’. Aside from the singular styling, on this track Young paradoxically inhabits that classic archetype of a gingham-clad hard-luck troubadour, and yet, rather than it being a kitsch cliche, there is a glowing comfort to that familiar motif. 

‘I Believe in You’

In an interview with Spin Magazine, Young once stated: “What am I talking about? “Now that you’ve made yourself love me do you think I can change it in a day?” That’s a heavy one. That song has the most haunting lyrics. “Am I lying to you when I say I believe you?” That’s the difference between the song and the poem.”

In short, in his own words, he surmises the poignancy of the song that is perfectly played out on the vignette of the melody in a very Randy Newman-esque fashion. While drawing on the storytelling structure that chordal changes can offer up in an almost postmodernist fashion is an act of genius, somehow there are still better ballads on the record!

‘Birds’

“It’s over,” Young croons with the sort of sincerity that disavows performative façade, and when he has you disarmed with that patently apparent vulnerability he lands with the poetry: “Nestled in your wings my little one, is special, morning brings another sun.”

Such well-crafted songwriting is a rare thing indeed, and it’s even rarer to find it amid a melody that could give goosebumps to a blade of grass and even cause a dastardly hyena to have some solemn empathy for a mellowed minute of bittersweet belle. 

‘Tell Me Why’

What a welcome to an album! The handshake that Neil Young offers up to listeners is a piece of beauty that makes acoustic folk as immersive as it has ever been with harmonies and finely mingled guitars into a sweet, layered, cacophonous mix. 

If there is any downside, that stops it from reaching the upper echelons of the ranking, it’s that Young said himself he has no idea what he means by “When you’re old enough to repay but young enough to sell” and decided to stop playing the song. While poetry has a right to remain obfuscated, in a record that thrives on humbling transparency, it proves a trickier line to follow. 

‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’

During his BBC recorded session that sees him coax some sort of primordial wonder from the passing ether and alchemically propagate it through nothing other than a dogeared six-string, a few harmonica harps and a closed-eyed croon that could pull Sputnik out of orbit, he takes a moment to say: “Here is a new song. It’s guaranteed to bring you right down, It’s called ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down.’ It sorta starts off real slow and then fizzles out altogether.” 

What follows is a song that has been echoed in a lot of music that has followed, with its dissonant DADGAD changes and lyrical value that brings something of the luminous vigour of French Impressionist into music. Young cuts through like the humble reverse anti-hero who dared to have a sonic nervous breakdown and comfort himself with the very same song.

‘Southern Man’

Displaying the depth to his oeuvre, ‘Southern Man’ introduces a bit of distortion to the record in a golden blast of folk turned visceral. It is a mark of his unflinching bravery as an artist to disrupt the milk and honey flow of the album with a wandering James Jamerson bass, groovy piano and a guitar solo that could split an electron.

And what’s more, it is a measure of the necessity to do so that the song registers as one of the best songs amid the absolute masterpiece of the album. Everything seems to be flowing from a deep place of improvised Duende and yet it registers as harmonious as a sonic glass slipper. This is sheer talent unbound at its euphonic best. 

‘After the Gold Rush’ 

‘After the Gold Rush’ is one of the most important songs ever written. It came before Bob Marley’s ‘Exodus’ but it captures much of the same cognizant reflection on the state of the planet with mournful tones, French horns, and ultimately, an exodus of its own. 

It’s hard to say exactly why it leaps out from the rest of a simply fantastic album as the most memorable, but perhaps it has something to do with the fact it stands aside from the ensuing apathy of the post-Woodstock era. It doesn’t hold up to much analysis, but who the hell is analysing it, just sink back into its depths, because it’s the sort of track you could drop a bomb in and never hear it hit the bottom. I ask, do melodies get any sweeter than this?

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