Released in late 1970, ‘After The Gold Rush’ is an album of depth and nuance that continues to resonate emotionally and politically fifty years on from its release. As Neil Young readies an anniversary reissue, it seems a pertinent time to revaluate the impact the album had, both at the time and over the ensuing half century.
Looking back to the opening month’s of 1970, Young was the newest full member of a Folk-Rock supergroup that had begun life as the trio of Crosby, Stills & Nash (CSN). Each of the trio had left significant bands in The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and The Hollies, respectively and had shown with their debut album that they were both a cohesive unit and prodigiously talented. With Young a part of an expanded band now named Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSNY), their follow up album ‘Déjà Vu’ was a critical and commercial success and ultimately has become the biggest selling album for each of the individual members. To outsiders, it may have looked like Neil Young had fallen on his feet, having previously been a member of Buffalo Springfield alongside Stephen Stills before that band disintegrated. More so, Young’s own band, Crazy Horse, had yet to see the commercial success that CSNY were so readily witnessing, the latter having won the Grammy for ‘Best New Band’ shortly before Young joined. Yet personalities clashed and egos rankled as the cross-continental tour dragged on, and the band imploded with question marks around any future successes.
‘After The Gold Rush’ was pieced together and recorded during the fateful 1970 CSNY tour and features both Stephen Stills and CSNY bassist Greg Reeves. It has come to mark a point of transition in Young’s career that few would have anticipated at the time. After all, within twelve months of the tour end, each full member would release a solo album of their own and while ‘After The Gold Rush’ was warmly received, it was not an instant classic.
Largely recorded at Young’s Topanga Canyon home near Los Angeles, CA the record included members of Crazy Horse and a young Nils Lofgren, later of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band fame, playing piano despite having little experience with the instrument (instead, he was an accomplished accordion player). The album title, and the original inspiration that broke Young out of a period of writer’s block, came from a screenplay for an artistic and potentially anarchic, end of the world styled film. Written by actor Dean Stockwell, whose acting career would go on to take in everything from cult classic movies ‘Blue Velvet’ and ‘Paris, Texas’ to sci-fi TV series ‘Battlestar Galactica’ and ‘Quantum Leap’, the screenplay ‘After The Gold Rush’ would never be made, despite Dennis Hopper signing on to produce. However, Young was inspired and went on to write not only the title track, but also ‘Cripple Creek Ferry’. Both of those tracks would deal significantly with a sense of place; while ‘Cripple Creek’ in Colorado is the site of one of the last gold mines to close after the gold rush, the title track plays closer to home, channelling Neil Young in his basement recording studio pondering environmentalism and the human impact on the world. Elsewhere, he’d tackle not only place, but the culture and people of that place on ‘Southern Man’, a rollicking track decrying racism and the unapologetic continuation of oppression in US Southern culture.
With ‘Southern Man’, along with his track ‘Alabama’ release two years later on the equally classic album ‘Harvest’, Young upset the Southern Rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd enough for them to write a rebuttal in the form of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ featuring the direct challenge to Neil Young that “a southern man don’t need him around anyhow”. In spite of the back and forth, those involved managed to remain fans of each other and become friends prior to the death of Skynyrd lead-singer Ronnie Van Zant.
Featuring a mix of styles, ‘After The Gold Rush’ shows Young in an unsettled phase, playing out Folk-Rock numbers with members of CSNY, harder rocking tracks like ‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’ with Crazy Horse, and more singular tracks like the title song picked out on solo piano. His tracks, like ‘Ohio’ written after the police shootings of protesters at Kent State University in Ohio, were being picked up by CSNY at a time when his own work was beginning to fracture stylistically and become more personal. Joining these threads is a clear sense of place in many of Young’s songs. That’s perhaps unsurprising for a man caught in Folk traditions, yet when the long touring and sense of unease with his place within CSNY and the drawing to a close of his first foray with Crazy Horse is also brought into the picture, it shows an outlet for a man struggling to find his place in the world.
As the first year of the 1970s bedded in, civil turmoil increased as the Vietnam War dragged on, and the hope of the 1960s faded, Neil Young wrote an album that confounded critics. Lacking standout singles ‘After The Gold Rush’ has had the mixed fortune to be evaluated as an album rather than a collection of hits. Partly because of Young’s later success, it is an album that, on reflection, hints at a nascent sound that would go on to proliferate throughout the 1970s. More importantly, it strikes a balance between acoustic and electric, hope and horror, love and loneliness as Young takes a step back and looks at the world around him in a grounded rather than an expansive way. Less an album of big ideals and worldly views and more an album edging towards gritty reality, it sits at the gateway between the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Neil Young has said that the track ‘After The Gold Rush’ look at environmentalism as if in the mind of a time-traveller, looking both backwards and forwards at the same place. In its own way, the album acts as a similarly transitional place; showing the Neil Young as he was with Buffalo Springfield and CSNY, and the Neil Young he would go on to be throughout the 1970s.