by Bill Forman
Critics tend to universally adore Neil Young, but that hasn’t always been the case.
Yesterday, while wandering around my beloved Rhapsody iPhone app, I came across a review of Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush album, which was released 40 years ago this summer.
Considered by some to be the artist’s best album, it includes “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” which was Young’s first American Top 40 single, and “Southern Man,” the song that got Lynyrd Skynyrd really mad at him.
So it’s kind of fun to go back and see how thoroughly Rolling Stone trashed the album when it first came out.
Credited to the improbably named Langdon Winner, it was an imaginatively written review, one that manages to mention both Kafka’s "The Hunger Artist" and Mrs. Miller’s "I'm a Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch” in the same paragraph. The writer, it turns out, is now a political science prof, and his university home page includes an image from Debord’s Society of the Spectacle as well as a vintage Rolling Stone cover.
I personally find arts journalism, i.e. interviews, to be more interesting than arts criticism, i.e. reviews, since a creator usually has a deeper knowledge of the work than someone who’s encountering it for the first time. The counter-argument, of course is that the reviewer is less biased, although that’s often not true. In any case, you still have to give the guy credit for going out on a limb with an opinion that, even then, wasn’t likely to be popular.
Here’s the review as it first appeared in the pages of Rolling Stone:
After The Gold Rush
Neil Young devotees will probably spend the next few weeks trying desperately to convince themselves that After The Gold Rush is good music. But they'll be kidding themselves. For despite the fact that the album contains some potentially first rate material, none of the songs here rise above the uniformly dull surface. In my listening, the problem appears to be that most of this music was simply not ready to be recorded at the time of the sessions. It needed time to mature. On the album the band never really gets behind the songs and Young himself has trouble singing many of them. Set before the buying public before it was done, this pie is only half-baked.
"Southern Man" is a good example. As a composition, it is possibly one of the best things Neil Young has ever written. In recent appearances with Crosby, Stills and Nash, the piece has had an overwhelmingly powerful impact on audiences. But the recording of "Southern Man" on After The Gold Rush fulfills very little of this promise. By today's standards, the ensemble playing is sloppy and disconnected. The piano, bass and drums search for each other like lovers lost in the sand dunes, but although they see each others' footprints now and then, they never really come together. Young tries to recover the dynamics of the piece with his voice alone, but can't quite make it: On this and the other really interesting tunes on the album — "Don't Let It Bring You Down," and "I Believe In You" — the listener hears only a faint whisper of what the song will become.
Another disturbing characteristic of the record, oddly enough, is Young's voice. In his best work Young's singing contains genuine elements of pathos, darkness and mystery. If Kafka's story "The Hunger Artist" could be made into an opera, I would want Neil Young to sing the title role. But on this album this intonation often sounds like pre-adolescent whining. The song "After The Gold Rush," for instance, reminds one of nothing so much as Mrs. Miller moaning and wheezing her way through "I'm A Lonely Little Petunia In An Onion Patch." Apparently no one bothered to tell Neil Young that he was singing a half octave above his highest acceptable range. At that point his pathos becomes an irritating bathos. I can't listen to it at all.
There are thousands of persons in this country who will buy and enjoy this record. More power to them, I suppose. But for me the test of an album is whether or not its quality is such that it allows you to grow into it a little more with each subsequent listening. And I find none of that quality here. To the 70 or 80 people who wrote to Rolling Stone in total rage that I could be anything but 100% delighted with Deja Vu, I will simply say: this record picks up where Deja Vu leaves off.
LANGDON WINNER, ROLLING STONE (Oct 15, 1970)