Twist and Shout presents On The Cover, a new monthly live series at Hi-dive featuring local bands covering influential and classic albums, from start to finish.
We offered Nathan Barsness of Fingers Of The Sun a chance to tell us why he loved Neil Young's After the Gold Rush album and why he chose to cover it with his band, so read on, and be sure to catch the first ever On The Cover live series on July 31st!
Something that’s always struck me about Neil Young’s music is its intuitiveness. The emotional content of the lyrics are clear and the music drives the point home with a sort of unschooled, but supremely confident, simplicity. It has inspired my approach to songwriting over the years, reminding me to trust my instincts, not over-think my choices, and keep the feel of the song itself at the center of all of my creative decisions—even if it requires sacrificing technique.
When Langdon Winner of Rolling Stone reviewed After the Gold Rush in 1970, he described the album as “half-baked” and went onto say that it sounded as if the songs were recorded before they were properly rehearsed. Though that may be true from a purely technical standpoint, Winner missed the point. With After the Gold Rush Neil Young captured a specific time and place in his life as a person and an artist. What we are left with as listeners is a snapshot of the emotions and energy of that time and place. That’s part of why the album stands up after all of these years: it is genuine.
Thanks to my dad’s almost fanatical love of Young, I have been steeped in his meandering, folk-rock sound since my ears formed in the womb. But it wasn't until my late teens when I first picked up a guitar and formed a band that I began to realize what an innovator Neil Young was. What interested me at the time was the way he could pack so much emotion into such simple music. Songs like “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Down by the River” were basically raw jams where Crazy Horse would repeat a basic, two-chord progression, while Young soloed over the top. It was inspiring to realize that with only basic musical knowledge (E minor 7, A major, REPEAT—as heard in “Down by the River”) you could not only make a complete song, but a potentially epic song. A perfect recipe for a 16 year old with a guitar and almost no training.
After the Gold Rush doesn’t have those extended two-chord jams, but it remains a great example of simple, non-technical music, that still communicates an almost unbelievable amount of feeling. It’s the kind of album that continues to inspire me, a constant reminder that the exploration of what a song can do is never finished. When Langdon Winner criticized what he perceived as the technical shortcomings of the album, what he missed was that those technical shortcomings were exactly what gave that album its abundance of emotion, its vibe, the intangible thing about it that keeps people coming back 40+ years later.
A perfect example of Winner missing the point is his criticism of the album’s title track. “Apparently no one bothered to tell Neil Young that he was singing a half octave above his highest acceptable range,” he wrote of “After the Gold Rush,” with its plaintive vocal and minimalist arrangement. At his best, Neil Young has a way of writing songs that sound as if they came into the world in their complete and final form. Listening to it now as a songwriter I get the feeling that Neil sat at a piano, put his hands on the keyboard, and wrote it in ten minutes of pure, unfiltered inspiration. Maybe the key that required him to sing “a half octave above his highest acceptable range” was the result of where his hands first landed when he sat down to write the song. And the fact that Young would trust his muse and take a chance on sounding slightly off on his vocals is one of the main reasons he remains an inspiration.
Similarly, Winner criticizes “Southern Man” for sounding “sloppy and disconnected,” where to me it sounds like it was recorded by a band that learned the song the very day it was recorded and nailed it. Young's guitar solo on the track has all the bite, grit, and energy of a first take. The difference between my view and Winner’s is only that, for me, that first take’s energy and uncertainty is what makes the track. It’s sloppy, but true.
Funny enough, earlier in 1970 Neil Young explained his process to another Rolling Stone writer, Elliot Blinder. He said that, for him, playing live in the studio captures the excitement of the moment and allows the musicians to react to each other in real time. In interviews he consistently talks about the “mood” or “spirit” of the recordings he’s been a part of and how the recording process (whether live or overdubbed) affects the final recordings. As an example he said that the differences between the Beatles and the Stones can be explained in part by the fact that the Beatles overdubbed (that is, recorded in pieces, often one instrument at a time) constantly, while the Stones preferred to play live in the studio.
I think that’s a good point and would go even farther in explaining my view of After the Gold Rush: It’s more like a field recording of some forgotten tribe’s traditional songs than a meticulously crafted, Sgt. Pepper-style concept album. It wasn’t meant to be built up, edited, and perfected, it was meant to share with us a particular time and place, while eliminating any distraction from the process of communicating the real, basic, human feelings at the heart of each song.