Neil Young was only 23 when he released his eponymously titled debut album, Neil Young (1968). Although he had already written and recorded a number of great songs with Buffalo Springfield, he was still finding his voice (lyrically, musically and vocally) on this record. After the lovely instrumental country shuffle of “The Emperor Of Wyoming” opens the album, “The Loner” appears and takes things in another direction. With a heavy organ sound (think Vanilla Fudge or The Band) and a driving beat, it’s one of only two other highlights on an otherwise unremarkable record. The fuzzy guitar sound points to his upcoming work with Crazy Horse, and I love the uplifting chorus: “Know when you see him, nothing can free him. Step aside, open wide…it’s the loner.” I wonder if this is how he saw himself. The other standout track is “The Old Laughing Lady,” which features a sparse arrangement and hushed vocals. This song slowly builds throughout, adding nice jazzy organ, subtle strings and soulful female voices, as well as a funkier groove in the middle section. I’m not sure who this old lady is that he’s singing about, but the theme of aging is something he would return to in the future.
[Neil Young - "The Loner"]
The rest of the album is far from terrible, but like fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell (whose catalog I covered here), Neil’s recording career didn’t get off to an auspicious start, although they would both deliver much stronger sophomore records. “If I Could Have Her Tonight” has slightly hypnotic verses and instrumental sections that I really like, but the chorus is a little too wordy even though the “country” feel is a nice change of pace. I like the light jazzy touch of “I’ve Been Waiting For You” beneath the distorted guitars. It’s not super catchy but it includes an excellent wailing guitar solo. “What Did You Do To My Life?” is a mellow post-breakup song (“It isn’t fair that I should wake up at dawn and not find you there”); it’s a relatively minor tune but I enjoy the vibrato effect on his voice during the chorus. “I’ve Loved Her So Long” could’ve been a demo for a late-‘60s pop singer looking for a slightly jazzy song with soulful female vocals. “The Last Trip To Tulsa” clocks in at over 9 minutes and feels even longer. British folk singer Roy Harper often did this kind of rambling song to perfection, but Neil wasn’t in the same league yet. At least it was buried at the end of the album. Most artists have a couple of clunkers in their catalog and Neil’s no exception, but the two key songs mentioned in the first paragraph would stand proudly among his best work.
For his next record, Neil recruited members of the Los Angeles-based band The Rockets (guitarist Danny Whitten, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina) and re-christened them Crazy Horse. It was a brilliant decision that paid immediate (and long-lasting) dividends. Their first album together, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969), created a template that he would often return to, and it established him as a bonafide rock performer. This album may only include 7 songs, but three of them have stood the test of time as Neil Young classics. “Cinnamon Girl” is a great stomping rocker that features killer musicianship from everyone, and I’m pretty sure it’s an ode to groupies (“The drummer relaxes and waits between shows for his cinnamon girl”). Also, how great is that guitar outro? “Down By The River” is 9 minutes of musical bliss. I love the intro with chugging guitar offset by the subtle lead (not sure who’s playing what), as well as those “ooh la la la la” vocals at “Yeah, she could drag me over the rainbow” in the pre-chorus. It features a hypnotic groove and a simple, stabbing guitar solo. I could listen to the solo section for hours. “Cowgirl In The Sand” is the longest song, at 10:30, but it seems to go by in the blink of an eye. The groove is light & bouncy, with an awesome bass line and exquisite guitar playing. The lyrics are abstract (is it about one woman, or does each verse represent a different woman?), but they’re almost irrelevant once you’re listening to the one-of-a-kind guitar solos after each chorus. These three songs form the cornerstone of the album, but there’s still more to like.
“Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” is an insanely catchy country-ish song with a killer guitar figure & tight-but-loose harmonies, and lyrics that find him longing for the comfort (and quiet) of home. “Round And Round (It Won’t Be Long)” put me in a state of slumber (in a good way) with two acoustic guitars swirling around one another and a nice (uncredited female?) harmony voice. Throughout the nearly 6 minute running time it moves along at a languid pace but is never boring. “The Losing End (When You’re On)” is decent but probably my least favorite song here. It’s a country shuffle that finds him playing the unlucky-in-love sad sack (“It’s so hard to make love pay when you’re on the losing end…and I feel that way again”). “Running Dry (Requiem For The Rockets)” feels like a British folk/murder ballad, with its slow pace and mournful, high-pitched violin that sounds like a Theremin at times. Even though there are a couple of slightly lesser songs here, the inclusion of 4 stone cold classics makes this the first essential Neil Young album.
He followed up a great record with an album that might be even better: After The Gold Rush (1970), this time featuring members of Crazy Horse along with several other musicians, including a young Nils Lofgren on piano. Of the 11 tracks offered here, at least 8 of them are noteworthy, including several of his best-known songs. “Tell Me Why” starts things off; a simple country/folk tune, with great acoustic guitar, that sets a different tone from the previous album. There are great vocal harmonies when they sing the title as well as “Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself?” “After The Gold Rush” is one of those radio standards that most people probably don’t know by name, since the main hook is the repeated “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s” refrain. It’s a great piano ballad with his now trademark falsetto vocals. What sounds like a French horn solo after the second verse is a nice touch. “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” is a slow waltz shuffle with great harmony vocals in the chorus. I especially love the Todd Rundgren-esque swinging pop feel in the pre-chorus (“I was always thinking of games that I was playing”). He shifts gears for “Southern Man,” one of his most oft-played songs. It’s a scathing attack on Confederate culture and a call for reparations years after slavery ended. This is one of the songs that caused Lynyrd Skynyrd to respond with “Sweet Home Alabama,” although apparently there was mutual respect between them.
“Don’t Let It Bring You Down” is a subtly catchy piano-based tune that immediately grabbed me at “Old man sitting by the side of the road…” I love the way it subtly shifts into the chorus (“Don’t let it bring you down…it’s only castles burning”) while maintaining the same feel throughout. “When You Dance I Can Really Love” is one of those sort-of well known Neil Young songs that should be even more highly regarded. It swings & stomps in equal measure, and is most likely performed by Crazy Horse. My only complaint…and it’s a minor one…is that perhaps it should’ve been shorter.
[Neil Young - "When You Dance I Can Really Love"]
“I Believe In You” is a pretty little song that finds him trying to keep a relationship going (“How can I place you above me? Am I lying to you when I say…that I believe in you?”). In just over a minute & a half, album closer “Cripple Creek Ferry” burrowed its way into my brain. It may be essentially a song fragment, but it’s super catchy and sounds like they had a blast recording it. The other three songs that I didn’t mention are good but don’t add much to my enjoyment of another essential album.
Next came his most popular album, Harvest (1972), which went to number 1 and made him a superstar during the era of sensitive singer-songwriters. Seven of the ten songs were recorded with a new group called The Stray Gators, whose most notable member is steel guitar player Ben Keith. Although Harvest has a reputation as a mellow country/folk/pop album, it has a few surprises up its sleeve as well as more all-time classics. “Harvest” is great in its simplicity, and I love the slowly descending melody in each line of the verse (i.e. “Did I see you walking with the boys, though it was not hand in hand?”). The song title is deceiving, as the chorus is “Dream up, dream up. Let me fill your cup, with the promise of a man.” “Heart Of Gold” was a massive hit and it’s not hard to imagine why. It’s perfectly recorded, sung & played, with emotive harmonica and simple, sing-along lyrics. That’s James Taylor & Linda Ronstadt on vocals at the end, and they appear again on “Old Man,” one of those ubiquitous Neil Young songs that people probably take for granted now, or consider it “overplayed” (the same assumption applies to “Heart Of Gold”). The way the banjo & steel guitar enter at around the same time makes for a formidable combination.
“There’s A World” has a big orchestral intro by the London Symphony Orchestra. The verses have a peaceful, pastoral vibe, which offsets nicely against the more bombastic sections. I wouldn’t necessarily want to hear a whole album of Neil’s songs with this type of arrangement, but I found myself enjoying it more with each listen. The same orchestra appears on the controversial “A Man Needs A Maid.” Often accused of being sexist because of the title, it’s actually a tender love song (dedicated to actress Carrie Snodgress, with whom he fell in love at the time) that’s undone by the overbearing arrangement. The three songs that end the album form a powerful little cluster. “Alabama,” which features David Crosby & Stephen Stills on vocals, could be a Crazy Horse song with that crunchy, fuzzy guitar and heavy arrangement. This was another song that Lynyrd Skynyrd wasn’t happy about, as it doesn’t paint a positive picture of that state (“Alabama, you got the weight on your shoulders, that’s breaking your back. Your Cadillac has got a wheel in the ditch and a wheel on the track”). “The Needle And The Damage Done” is a stark solo acoustic performance, recorded live at UCLA, that points a weary yet accusing finger at the drug culture that claimed the life of Crazy Horse member Danny Whitten. I love the way the crowd noise at the end cuts off abruptly as album closer “Words (Between The Lines Of Age)” begins. Over the course of its meandering 6-1/2 minutes they lay down a fantastic midtempo groove and Neil delivers some stinging guitar. The band displays a great sense of dynamics, Stephen Stills & Graham Nash add excellent harmonies, and Neil’s heartfelt, angular guitar solo near the end reminds me of Richard Thompson at his most aggressive. This may not be everyone’s idea of a great Neil Young song, but with each listen it continued to blow me away.
There are a couple of songs I haven’t mentioned, but neither made much of an impression. They’re solid country-rock but there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about them. Harvest is certainly worthy of being considered among his best work; any album with 6-7 classics among its 10 songs needs to be heard.
For the soundtrack album to the film Journey Through The Past (1972), Neil collected rare recordings from Buffalo Springfield and Crosby Stills Nash & Young as well as alternate versions of solo material and other goodies. As far as I know, it’s never been released on CD, so I’m glad I found a copy of the 2-LP set about 10 years ago. Although there’s nothing earth-shattering here, I enjoyed a lot of what he included. It starts off with a couple of Buffalo Springfield tracks: A medley of “For What It’s Worth” and “Mr. Soul” performed on a TV show and “Rock & Roll Woman” recorded on The Ed Sullivan show, all in 1967. The latter was an interesting choice as it was written by Stephen Stills. The medley was lip synched for their performance, but the version of “Mr. Soul” is an alternate recording that includes some cool guitar effects. Next are three CSNY songs from the Fillmore East in 1970: “Find The Cost Of Freedom” (another Stills song, featuring nice acoustic guitar interplay and strong harmonies, especially in the a capella section at the end), “Ohio” (a solid rocking version with searing guitars and typically great harmonies) and “Southern Man” (with Neil really belting out the vocals on this more raw and urgent take on an already killer song).
Several other tracks are outtakes from the Harvest sessions. “Are You Ready For The Country?” is not a polished recording, reminding me more of a Paul McCartney demo, only with added twang. “Alabama” sounds like a live-in-the-studio take of this excellent song. It’s a bit of a work-in-progress as studio chatter is included, and occasionally the production shifts to sound like it’s recorded in a tunnel. One whole LP side is taken up by the 16-1/2 minute version of “Words (Between The Lines Of Age).” If you don’t like this song you would definitely skip this version, but since it’s one of my new favorites I was thrilled to hear them jamming on this great groove for so long, and Neil’s guitar playing is particularly stunning. Side 4 doesn’t offer much more than movie dialogue, two tracks by an orchestra & chorus and a Beach Boys instrumental, although it’s nice to have the full version of “Soldier” which appeared in edited form on Decade. I wouldn’t consider Journey Through The Past an essential purchase, but considering its relative rarity I’m really glad I found a copy when I did.
Not a bad way to start off an artist’s catalog, with 3 out of 5 albums being instant classics. It’s great to see that he was already offering up a diverse array of styles in such a short period of time. I already knew a number of songs from this batch of releases, and there were plenty of newly discovered gems as well. I’m looking forward to revisiting the next phase of his career, which includes some critically acclaimed albums that I’ll start listening to tomorrow. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you come back soon.