I love Neil Young. He’s absolutely one of my musical heroes, being so cranky, weird, and uncompromising, but with a sense of humour. He’s bursting with personality, which is what makes his songs so fantastic, I think: if your music is about (ugh) personal expression, then you had better have a darn interesting self. What’s more, he pairs his strange and wonderful lyrics with the most amazingly memorable tunes, and then plays and sings the hell out of them.

Well, I know this now. But there was a time that I thought of him as a sort of countryish musician with a formidable reputation (and there was a long time before that when his name meant nothing to me). I put off listening to him because whatever country-tinged music I’d heard before simply didn’t appeal to my tastes. But the first time I tried After the Gold Rush, I just found myself wholly bemused: even with my prior prejudices, I really liked the very countryish, in-3/4-time, ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’. How could I not, with that melody? Then the title is incredibly pithy and it’s got delightful lyrics:

I have a friend I’ve never seen

He hides his head inside a dream

Someone should call him and see if he can come out

Try to lose the down that he’s found.

Well, those prejudices are no more; After the Gold Rush sort of opened the way to country music for me. And I got over Neil Young’s much-remarked-upon nasal tenor (occasionally alto, occasionally off-pitch) vocals pretty quickly, too; it’s just part of him and I don’t think a conventionally good voice is a pre-requisite for good music. Anyhow, all 33 minutes of After the Gold Rush is beautifully written and arranged – whether harmonica-laced country, acoustic folk-rock, piano balladry, or electric rock – and very well put together. Despite the variety of styles on display, the album is remarkably cohesive. Plus, it flows beautifully, right down to the order of the songs. Who else but Neil Young would have thought to ease the transition from the scathing rocker ‘Southern Man’ to the wailing cover of the country song ‘Oh, Lonesome Me’ with the totally apt 1 minute 20 second interlude that is ‘Till the Morning Comes’? (Complete lyrics: ‘I’m gonna give you till the morning comes/I’m only waiting till the morning comes.’)

‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ must be one of my favourite Neil Young songs. Melody, check. (I’m sure I can’t have heard it more than twice during my 20-odd years in the pop-wilderness, and of course I didn’t know whose song it was; and yet the first time I heard it properly on ‘After the Gold Rush’ the tune just leapt out of my memory. How does he do it?) Lyrics, check. (‘Blind man running down the side of the road with an answer in his hand/Come on down to the river of sight and you can really understand’) And, perhaps most importantly: spirit, check. In the face of a desolate landscape, the narrator advises:

Don’t let it bring you down

It’s only castles burning

Just find someone who’s turning

And you will come around.

(!) I’m not quite sure what exactly he means here (which is par for the course where Neil Young is concerned)… but all the same I like it very much indeed. Completely lovely song.

I understand that some people (whom Southerners might call Yankees) admire ‘Southern Man’ a great deal, especially in the context of the 1960s civil rights movement. Well, the lyrics are certainly powerful:

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

Of course, we must question the implication that all Southerners are racist hypocrites. Reluctance to eliminate institutionalised racism and so-called redneck attitudes, post-civil rights revolution, weren’t and aren’t limited to the South. But I suspect that Neil Young was well-aware of that anyhow, and was deliberately playing on well-entrenched stereotypes. (Interestingly, ‘Southern Man’ was written apparently after he got beaten up for his long hair while travelling in the South.) After all, contrary to the myth about a feud, he was good-natured about Lynyrd Skynyrd’s riposte in ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ (another song I’m very fond of):

Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her

Well, I heard Old Neil put her down

Well, I hope Neil Young will remember

Southern man don’t need him around, anyhow

Apart from the slightly dubious note struck by the lyrics, the music of ‘Southern Man’ alone is pretty great. The song doesn’t mar the listening experience of After the Gold Rush in the least, not for me, anyway. It’s not just one of my favourite Neil Young albums, it is also a good way to get into his music; though I love Rust Never Sleeps best, After the Gold Rush is more accessible. And no, ‘accessible’ is not a pejorative term.