Welcome to a new world, guys.
I direct my welcome to men specifically because men have set the rules for almost all of human history. Being born male comes with a sense of entitlement in nearly every culture on earth. This gift from history has convinced many men that they have everything to lose and much to fear by giving up control of the rule-making system. Women who have learned to play the game and have become experts in manipulating male insecurities to secure a comfortable life also fear such a change.
Héloïse Adelaide Letissier aka Christine, Chris, Christine and the Queens, etc. is a French singer-songwriter who represents a threat to the status quo. This is in part because Letissier is pansexual, attracted to personalities as opposed to genders. Even in the countries without draconian punishments for woman-to-woman sex, such a person is likely perceived by half the population as a threat to social stability, a woman living in sin, or both. But it is her willingness and ability to challenge feminine norms and ideals that amplifies the threat she represents to traditional gender roles. In an interview with The Guardian, she remarked, “A huge taboo now is still a woman’s desire. We are forgotten – it’s like we are supposed to sustain other people’s desire because we are desirable objects. What if we desire ourselves? So I feel like what could be shocking is not even me being naked, but me wanting to fuck someone and talking about it really simply – ‘I just want to fuck your bones.’”
She complements her instincts to challenge taboos with genuine musical talent. Her music is heavily electronic, and on Chaleur Humaine, beautifully melodic and both soothing and intense at the same time. Her chord structures fit well within the boundaries of classic pop music, with an occasional nod to hip-hop and rap. Chaleur Humaine is not a loud album, and there’s very little in the way of unpleasant noises or rough patches. Letissier’s voice takes center stage, a highly captivating voice capable of impressive range movement and tonal variation. If you’re looking for something more obviously energetic, I refer you to her latest release, Chris. Personally, I find the relative stillness of Chaleur Humaine more engaging.
I use the word “engaging” deliberately, as Letissier’s music and personality are strongly oriented towards engaging other people and forming connections. You feel this desire to engage in her live performances, and it is something she claims to practice in daily life. From the Guardian interview:
I have no charisma, so people never come over to me,” she says. As an experiment she recently walked home through the neighbourhood with her “chakras open”, attempting to engage strangers. “I thought I should try to be awake and make loads of eye contact,” she says, splaying her fingers either side of her eyes. “It worked!”
Having grown up in San Francisco with its openness to non-standard sexual variations and New Age philosophies, I view Letissier as completely non-threatening and would be delighted to have her over to my place for dinner and conversation (putting aside for a moment that I would never agree to meet an artist I’ve reviewed or might review). I too qualify as pansexual, and though I’m not all that interested in spiritual philosophies, I understand the theory surrounding chakras and can follow someone’s drift when they go there. The statement above concerning female desire could have come from my mouth, and in reading her back story, I learned that we both had a traumatic experience in our twenties. All things considered, I feel simpatico with her personal choices, history, lifestyle and beliefs.
Still, admiring someone as a person doesn’t automatically mean that I care for their music. I think Bruce Springsteen is musically talented and a pretty cool guy but his music is not my cup of tea. Translation: I’m not going to give her a pass simply because we share fuck habits.
Letissier sings in both French and English, sometimes mingling the languages in the same song. Letissier’s lyrical style when using her native French is poetic, with strong metaphors, concrete language and memorable imagery; when she writes in English, the lyrics are comparatively simple and meanings are easier to grasp. Letissier shared her approach with the folks at Hello Giggles:
The language is actually a weird part of the process from the beginning, even with my French album. Some songs have an English chorus and a French verse. In the beginning, in France, people were like, “Why don’t you write the whole song in French or a whole song in English?” I like to play with the two languages because for me, it’s a different way of writing. Of course, when I’m writing in English, I don’t have the same tools as when I write in French, because I’m not bilingual. It’s quite naive and direct. With French, I’m more at ease, I can play more with images and rhythm.
In both languages she displays an impressive grasp of the importance of strong hooks—she nearly always goes for the home run somewhere in her songs. Her arrangements are well thought-out and feature marvelous builds. Given her talent, the intrigue attached to her sexual orientation and her multilingual presentation, it’s no surprise that this album entered the Top 10 in every nearly every country in the Western world save one: the United States.
Knock me over with a feather.
Letissier’s live performances are disciplined and heavily choreographed, with supporting musicians and dancers who straddle the line between modern ballet and hip-hop. She sings as beautifully on stage as she does in the studio, and holds the crowd in the palm of her hand with her voice and disarming presence. When I saw her live, I noticed one quirk above all—one that is decidedly un-French. She smiles spontaneously, and her smile is as pure and beautiful as any smile I’ve ever seen.
There are multiple versions of this album under different titles. It was released in most countries as Chaleur Humaine, but in the damn-them-furinners-and-their-furrin-languages USA you’ll find it under the title Christine and the Queens. I have the original French version; the English-speaking edition features different tracks and translations, most notably involving the song “Christine,” which was renamed “Titled.” For this review, I’m sticking with the original French version because the lyrics are more to my liking.
Or, to put in another way, screw American xenophobia.
Chaleur Humaine begins with a dramatic combination of piano and synth that give way quickly to the beats that form the lean accompaniment for most of Letissier’s vocal on the opening track, “iT.” Letissier wrote the song after she was expelled from a Lyon drama school because she had the nerve to produce her own play, something only male students were allowed to do. She describes it as a song “about wanting to have a dick just in order to have an easier life,” an offhand way of saying she’d like to have the privileges automatically granted to penis holders. The opening line refers to Emily Dickinson (“With it, I become the death Dickinson feared”), though I’m not sure if the reference is to “I heard a fly buzz when I died,” “Because I could not stop for death,” or “I felt a funeral in my brain.” What’s important is the empathetic reference to a great woman poet who was virtually unknown in her lifetime: if Emily had been cursed with a penis, people would have taken her more seriously. The phallus-wish expressed in the chorus shouldn’t be taken literally, as I doubt Letissier really wants one of those peculiar protuberances that men are so proud of, but the words can also be heard as the triumphant cry of a trans person with the wherewithal to afford the operation:
Cause I’ve got it
I’m a man now
I’ve got it
I’m a man now
And I won’t let you steal iT
I bought it for myself
I’m a man now
Her voice on the piece is clear, strong and unashamed; the tone is one of the defiant pride reflected in a line she later delivers in “Christine”—“j’ai le menton haut pour un rien“—for which the best English equivalent is “I hold my head up high . . . just because.” The result is both beautiful and moving.
“Saint Claude” features French verses and an English chorus, but the key to understanding the song is that the title refers to a train station, that enduring symbol of life’s arrivals, departures and missed connections. The story describes an incident where Letissier witnessed the harassment of an “extravagant” boy on public transport—extravagant because he wore some makeup and had a partially-visible tattoo. In real life, Letissier did not intervene on behalf of the boy (probably a smart thing from the standpoint of personal safety), and wrote the song as an apology for not standing up against the bullies on his behalf. In the song, her reimagined self sits with the boy, noticing his “souffle façade” (uneven, jerky breathing) and describing the details of his appearance that set him apart from the crowd. She ends the first verse reflecting on an image of tension and distress:
J’emporte un portrait dévoré
Douleur, destin bord à bord
As we’re dealing with poetry here, a direct translation results in nonsense, but what she’s saying in colloquial English is “I take away a portrait of a person devoured, in pain, his destiny (in the sense that manifesting true self leaves him open to attack) engulfing his soul.” Letissier then switches to English to express what she wishes she would have expressed in that moment, an offer of support that he can choose to accept or reject:
Here’s my station
Here’s my station
But if you say just one word I’ll stay with you
Her voice on that chorus is achingly beautiful, and it’s very clear from her tone that she wants the boy to accept the offer. The second verse features some clever wordplay as Letissier uses the orthographic similarities of the verb respire (to breathe) and the adverb pire (worse) to encourage him to pay attention to the “violence” of his breathing and the fight-flight syndrome it represents; it ends with her empathizing with the hard reality of his situation, describing the city they inhabit as “dead” (in the sense of backwards, stuck in the past) and reminding him of the courage it takes to survive in such a place. In the fade, she adds the phrase, “We are so lonely in this part of town,” a break from the pattern than powerfully captures the isolation that often follows the refusal to conform. Even if you don’t understand a word of French and have no desire to learn, the power of her performance in “Saint Claude” is truly remarkable and certainly worth a few minutes of your time:
“Christine” continues the theme of the challenges inherent in different-ness by focusing on the difficulty of finding one’s balance in an unsupportive environment; it is also the name of the persona she wanted to project on this album (the second album Chris reflects a different aspect of her personality). Letissier had some difficulty with this song, unfortunately titled “Cripple” in the original English version, a slip that says more about the problems inherent in translation than her intent. In the French version, it’s clear she’s talking about the challenge of what we call “having your feet firmly planted on the ground,” but the line she uses in French to express that feeling forms a double entendre which was lost in the translation to English. The usual phrase for “I can’t stand up” in French is formed with the verb se lever, but Letissier used the more colloquial se tener, resulting in je ne tiens pas debout. “Je ne tiens pas” is a polite way of saying “I don’t give a shit,” so when Latissier sang the translated line in English—“I actually do enjoy being a cripple”—she was attempting to embrace her perceived disability as a non-conformist and that she didn’t give a shit what anyone thought. By the time she re-released the song in English, she had learned her lesson and used the safer word “Tilted” for the song title. Despite all the twists and turns involved in linguistic communication, “Christine” is generally a nicely-flowing piece integrating flute sounds with a seriously compressed, gated and squished synth that sounds like the comfort of a warm pillow. I don’t care much for the rap passage, as I don’t care for rap in any language, but she executes it with competence.
The English version of “Science Fiction” is so radically different from the original French that they’re really two different songs with two different messages. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this one as I don’t care at all for the disco feel or the annoyingly spacey sounds that accompany the arrangement, but I’ll give Latissier credit for throwing a line of Italian into the mix, spiced with male harmony. The arrangement and her performance on the hybrid song “Paradis Perdus” are much stronger but I’d rather listen to Letissier’s own compositions than an integration of an old Christophe-Jarre song with Kanye West’s “Heartless.” That said, I can’t deny the stunning immediacy and excellent delivery in her performance:
Letissier describes “Half Ladies” as a song “about being a different type of girl, an awkward girl, but being beautiful in that way.” The French version is rich in imagery and metaphor, capturing the competing pressures attached to a woman’s desire to expand the definition of “femininity” beyond cultural boundaries. The first verse cleverly describes how the simple act of choosing what to wear—a daily struggle for many women given the heavier expectations attached to our appearance—is a form of communication that can be easily misinterpreted:
Cheveux en arrière
Col boutonné haut
C’est moins pour l’allure
Que pour cacher l’éraflure
Translation and breakdown: The woman here has chosen to pin her hair up rather than allowing it to fall seductively on her shoulders; she also chooses a high-button collar to finish the look. While that image calls up “prim-and-proper,” she feels it necessary to explain that “it’s less about the allure” because “prim-and-proper” often represents the ultimate challenge to the male of the species—the desire to “break that cold bitch.” While that gives the woman pause, an overriding consideration leads her to dress in that manner: “Que pour cacher l’éraflure,” meaning “to hide the scratch.” While that could refer to damage arising from rough sex (hinted at in the second verse), it could have also resulted from a simple accident—but heaven help the woman who fails to hide such an obvious flaw! While I was writing this review, an American friend sent me a picture of Bernie Sanders campaigning in public with a gauze bandage on his head, asking the obvious question, “Could a woman candidate do the same thing and get away with it?” The answer is equally obvious—fuck no! The beauty industry spends billions on advertising to reinforce this culturally-induced sensitivity of ours, and we fall for the pitch while simultaneously savoring and resenting the compliments we get when we “look beautiful.” What Letissier is asking us to do in “Half-Ladies” is expand our definition of beauty, an act that requires a cultural shift concerning what constitutes a “beautiful woman,” which puts the entire notion of “woman” up for debate. Given her obvious commitment to manifest the true self, Letissier ends the song in proud defiance of gender norms:
Si je ne veux pas être une grande fille
Je serai un petit garçon
Pour chaque insulte lancé
Il pousse un grain de beauté
The translation is tricky because of the multi-layered nature of the poetry, but essentially she’s saying “I don’t want to be a big girl, so I’ll be a little boy, and each insult flung my way will make me more beautiful.” The last line actually describes a chemical reaction where the insults create “beauty marks,” but the context indicates that Letissier was using “grain de beauté” more metaphorically than literally. Musically, “Half Ladies” begins quietly, Letissier’s gentle voice supported by keyboard, low-volume beats and soft hand-clapping. The music builds ever-so-subtly to one of those home-run choruses that sticks in your head for days.
The title track sits nicely at the halfway point in the album, serving as the thematic centerpiece of the work. Most English-speaking commentators translate “Chaleur Humaine” as “human warmth,” a Disney-esque interpretation if there ever was one. While the word can refer to the warmth of cordiality, chaleur is more commonly associated with heat, and the sexual connotations of the word are similar to the English connotations. It’s pretty clear from the opening verses that Letissier favors the sexual interpretation:
Je suis contre les chastetés
Toutes celles que glissent sous l’oreiller
Des Cupidons aux lèvres abîmées
Sur le sexe les jambes repliées
Essentially this is a position statement in which she comes out against chastity, vanilla sex, Cupids with “damaged lips” and legs crossed to hide the crotch. In the second verse, she adds the closed mouth, completing the list of symbols of sexual denial. The first two verses reminded me of the contrasting images from Histoire d’O where the women in the château were trained to communicate constant availability through parted lips, open crotches and easily accessible ass cracks. Letissier falls short of advocating that particular lifestyle, and while she does refer to what can be translated as “gratitude for bleeding,” she prefaces that phrase by referring to the healing power of a caress, so the gratitude could simply mean she’s thankful that her heart is pumping away. In essence, Letissier is questioning the cultural division of love into “nice, cuddly, socially acceptable love” and “naughty, socially-repressed love marked by passion and lust,” and argues that both deserve appreciation as expressions of human warmth. The music has the steadiness of a march with little chordal variation, suitable for a statement of one’s core beliefs.
The most musically erotic song on Chaleur Humaine describes a narcissist making love, which would leave one to believe that the song deals with masturbation. What complicates the interpretation of “Narcissus Is Back” is the heavy use of mirrors, so the song could deal with the act of self-satisfaction (though there is no mention of a dildo), an intimate relationship with a narcissist or an exposé of one’s own narcissistic self-consciousness during a fuck. The ambiguity could be attributed to Letissier writing in English, but whatever the cause, I like the ambiguity and the edgy, sexy arrangement so much that this is the only song on Chaleur Humaine to make my fuck playlists—the greatest endorsement I have to offer.
“Ugly-Pretty” is even more narcissistic in the sense that it deals with the “excessive interest in one’s personal appearance.” Written in English with a spoken-word passage in French, I appreciate Letissier continuing the conversation about the culturally-induced female obsession with beauty, but I think the topic was covered more effectively in Imogen Heap’s “Bad Body Double” on her Ellipse album.
“Nuit 17 à 52” is a vignette covering the development of what turns out to be a dysfunctional romance where the participants struggle with identity and image as they pass the stage of superficial getting-to-know-you into a transitional stage covering nights 17 to 52. During this period the narrator experiences an eventually overwhelming urge to tear down the façade and reveal the true self. This happens on the fiftieth night, where she “cuts it open” so the partner is able to see through the façade. The narrator recognizes that this choice is likely to be a relationship-ending decision, as captured in the line “Et je hais déjà la triste nuit 53” (“I already hate the sad night 53”). This is one instance where the storyline—or, more accurately, the essential meaning of the song—is best captured in the video, where Letissier portrays multiple layers of self in a performance that exposes the falsity inherent in traditional gender definitions:
Chaleur Humaine closes with the half-English, half-French song “Here,” an appropriate choice of language for a song about her temporary exile in England where she connected with the drag queen musicians who would later perform with her as The Queens. She likens the experience to the phoenix—“Et mon curieux visage est né/Des débris du grand incendie” (“And my curious face is born/From the debris of the great fire”)—with the curieux visage underscoring that the new life also represents a new identity. The music here is more about mood, rather like an electronic Phillip Glass piece that serves as a tribute to one of the composers Latissier has identified as an influence. What really holds your attention is one of the strongest vocals on the album, conveying the overwhelming appreciation of the trauma survivor who has been given the opportunity to move forward.
Chaleur Humaine reveals Letissier as an artist of unusual courage and clear intent. While that intent sometimes gets lost in translation, the voice you hear is the voice of a human being asserting her right to be respected for her choices in manifesting her true self. It is a beautiful voice, an expressive voice, a voice that reflects the best tendencies and talents of the human race. If her message feels threatening to some, whether due to religious dogma or male entitlement, well, that’s what an artist is supposed to do—attempt to open hearts and minds by challenging our worst tendencies so that the best parts of ourselves can come out of hiding.
“It wasn’t The Beatles breaking up and it wasn’t Kent State. No, I knew the 60’s were over and done the first time I heard After the Gold Rush.”
My dad shared those thoughts when I visited him in the hospital a couple of weeks ago. I thought the best way to keep his spirits up would be to listen to his thoughts on the music of his time, so I brought my laptop along and together we worked down the list of 60’s-70’s albums on my to-do spreadsheet.
“I don’t hear that on the album, dad. I would have thought you’d pick Lennon’s ‘God’ as the 60’s death knell.”
“It’s not in the words or the music. It’s in the mood. Even with all the shit that went down in the 60’s, there was still hope. After that, there was just this . . . sense of despair. I know you’re going to tell me I’m idealizing and simplifying, but the 60’s were light, the 70’s were darkness, and I think Neil Young sensed that. It’s the dividing line between the 60’s and the 70’s.”
I still wasn’t entirely convinced, but I had no other credible explanation for the enduring power of After the Gold Rush, which still tops most of the Best of Neil Young lists thirty-four albums later. It’s a quiet album full of sparse arrangements and only a few moments of flash. Neil himself admits that some of the lyrics make no sense at all, but some of those songs are revered to this day. The project itself was initially inspired by a screenplay that never made it to the big screen, and perhaps the influence of this “sort of an end-of-the world movie,” explains the sadness that permeates the album. Even a couple of the happier songs sound sad, as if Neil is trying to lift the spirits of a group of mourners in a funeral parlor. Despite the gloom, I also detect a kind of tenderness as well, like the gentle hand placed on the shoulder of a person who has suffered the loss of a loved one.
Critical reaction at the time of release was more along the lines of a yawn than a round of huzzahs. Though I’d heard After the Gold Rush frequently while growing up, I too was not impressed the first time I devoted an evening to really listen to the album. I felt it lacked the coherence and power of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, found the minimalistic arrangements dull and unimaginative and thought Neil’s vocals rather lazy and ragged. There were a few songs I liked, but in the end I concluded that the admiration for After the Gold Rush had more to do with nostalgia than musical excellence, and when I started the blog, I didn’t even bother to list the album as a possibility. The combination of my American boycott and my review of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere led me to add more Neil Young to the list . . . and that meant I’d have to listen to more albums to develop a fuller picture of the artist . . . and sooner or later I’d have to revisit the curiosity that is After the Gold Rush.
Whether it was my own sense of impending Armaggedon now that racism, sexism and nationalism have come into vogue, or my father’s recent health issues, listening to After the Gold Rush at this point in my life was a far more rewarding experience. While it may not have been his conscious intent, and is certainly not his best work, Neil Young created a work that captured the mood of his time by compiling a set of songs that dealt with the eternal human experiences of loss, loneliness and grief. The moods range from wistfulness to outrage, covering many of the seven stages of grief described by Kubler-Ross, with more emphasis on the earlier stages (shock, denial, guilt, anger and depression) than the exit stages of acceptance and reconstruction. As much as we would like to deny and forget about those experiences, they are part and parcel of the human story, and made After the Gold Rush unique in its time.
“Tell Me Why” establishes the mood by posing the ultimate and often unanswerable question in the human endeavor to make sense of life. In James McDonough’s Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography, the author labels the famous chorus (“Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself/When you’re old enough to repay and young enough to sell”) “convoluted hippie doublespeak,” and lo and behold, the songwriter agreed with his assessment: “It sounds like gibberish to me. I stopped singing this song because when I get to that line, I go, ‘What the f–k am I talking about?'” What saves the song, ironically, is that the lyrics don’t make sense, as our answers to the question “Tell me why?” often result in gibberish or in outlandish speculations that fall into the category of utter nonsense (i. e., JFK assassination theories, antivaxxers, stars out of alignment, etc.). Additional saving graces come in the form of the Crazy Horse harmonies in the chorus and the carefully-designed acoustic guitar duet featuring Neil and Nils Lofgren that handles both rhythm and counterpoint. The choice to drop the standard guitar tuning one step combine with the minor and major seventh chords to reflect the sense of melancholy unfulfillment expressed in the lyrics.
I’ll turn the mike over to a more experienced songwriter for an explanation of the title track:
Randy Newman found the song’s charms more inexplicable. “I can’t believe I liked ‘After the Gold Rush,’ because it doesn’t hold up to analysis. I can’t stand that sort of ‘meadow rock’ thing—Neil’s doing it, and writing about a big issue in a simplistic way, but I still like it. I love it. It just sounds good. There’s some kind of alchemy going on. It’s an artless type of thing—not to imply that Neil’s some kind of idiot savant, he’s certainly shrewder than that—but you have to listen to the records to realize how really great he is. “You can’t put those lyrics down on the page and say, ‘Look! This guy’s great!’ They lay there like a turd … if you look at it close, his songwriting seems so artless. It’s very simple—‘bad’ rhymes with ‘sad,’ ‘mad’ and ‘glad,’ and he’ll do it again in the third verse—it’s like a child grabbin’ around and pickin’ the first thing he finds. But between those grabs there’s a high IQ at work, making it all turn out.
McDonough, Jimmy. Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography (p. 340). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The lyrics are certainly tantalizing and contain evocative imagery, but once again, the author of those lyrics admits the meaning is elusive at best:
When Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt recorded it in 1999 for their collaboration Trio II, they got some unique insight into the song from the man who wrote it. Said Parton: “When we were doing the Trio album, I asked Linda and Emmy what it meant, and they didn’t know. So we called Neil Young, and he didn’t know. We asked him, flat-out, what it meant, and he said, ‘Hell, I don’t know. I just wrote it. It just depends on what I was taking at the time. I guess every verse has something different I’d taken.'”
The three scenes depicted in the song (medieval times, modern war, futuristic space travel) give the author an opportunity for a powerful compare-and-contrast historical narrative, but apparently that possibility never crossed the author’s mind. With a little imagination and a running jump past the second verse, one could make the connection between the first verse’s “Look at mother nature on the run” and the third verse’s “flying mother nature’s silver seed to a new home in the sun” and conclude that the song is a warning of an environmental disaster so vast that we’d have to leave the planet—but this fragment of stray meaning doesn’t sound any alarm bells. Like Randy Newman, I can’t explain why I like the song beyond the gentle piano and the introduction of a mournful horn to confirm the song’s essential melancholy, but somehow, it works in the context of the album’s prevailing themes of grief and loss.
Such an album would certainly have a place for a song titled, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” and in the context of the times, the song can be interpreted as a subtle rejection of the 60’s ethic described best in “All You Need Is Love.” Unlike that song, which deals with love in the abstract, this song addresses the fundamental truth that all attempts to form loving relationships entail multiple risks. The first verse covers how most of us behave in our teens when we’re still trying to sort out our emotions: “I was always thinking of games that I was playing/Trying to make the best of my time.” The second verse tells the story of someone who quit the game because it’s much easier to think about love’s possibilities than the pain that often accompanies the experience:
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
The verse could also be interpreted as a foreshadowing of Lennon’s message, “The dream is over.” I love the perfect melding of acoustic guitar and piano rhythm, and the limited roles of bass and drums in reinforcing that rhythm. The harmonies are quite good, reflecting the care taken to perfect the arrangement.
The reflective melancholy of the first three songs is shattered by the introduction of bitter anger in the album’s most famous track, “Southern Man.” Having written “Ohio” only a few months before, the song gave listeners of the time reassurance that Neil Young had not abandoned the 60’s ethic of raising one’s voice in protest of injustice. According to his biography, the anger you hear in his voice has as much to do with an ongoing fight he was having with his then-wife as it does outrage over never-ending racism, but the lyrics contain anger to spare:
Your hair is golden brown
I’ve seen your black man comin’ round
Swear by God I’m gonna cut him down!
I heard screamin’
And bullwhips cracking
How long? How long?
In his recent autobiography, Neil said of the song, “I don’t like my words when I listen to it. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue.” I think he was more on-target in the McDonough biography: “‘Southern Man” is a strange song. I don’t sing it anymore. I don’t feel like it’s particularly relevant. It’s not ‘Southern Man’—it’s ‘White Man.’ Heh heh. It’s much bigger than ‘Southern Man.'” I can understand the anger, but I haven’t found any evidence that the song had any impact on his target audience, making it a relatively ineffective protest song. As a musical experience, it’s explosive. Neil’s mad ride across the fretboard in the extended solo has been lauded and criticized, but I think his emotionally-driven guitar style works incredibly well in this piece. “Man, I don’t play the guitar. I hit the guitar,” he told USA Weekend, indicating that he uses the instrument frequently for percussive attack and emotional expression, a style closer to Jackson Pollock than Eddie Van Halen. Nils Lofgren’s first shot at piano demonstrates his fundamental strength as a musician, adding just the right amount of acceleration at critical moments.
Needing a break from the intensity of “Southern Man” and the relentlessly down mood, the next song is the first of two light fragments used to wrap up each side of the album. “Till the Morning Comes” is truly an intermission piece, a scrap of pastel color in the midst of darker shades. If you’re really efficient, you might be able to take a leak, wash your hands and get back in time to turn over the record in the one minute and twenty-eight seconds it takes to finish.
Neil Young’s cover of Don Gibson’s “O Lonesome Me” corrected the fundamental problem with the wildly popular original, which is played at almost twice the speed and sounds positively fucking jolly. You would have thought Don had consulted the Master of Lonesome about the proper way to deliver a lonesome song, but apparently Don was too busy trying to make the connection with teenage rockers to bother listening to Hank Williams. Look. When you’re lonesome, you don’t feel perky and you don’t feel chipper. You feel like shit! And if you’re blessed with poetic talent, you write words like these and sing them slowly and deliberately while wallowing in existential angst:
The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome I could cry
While “O Lonesome Me” doesn’t come close to that level of poetry, Neil and the band capture the dreary experience of a lonesomeness that feels like it’s never going to end, like a sealed room with no visible exit. The decelerated tempo, Neil’s earnest voice, the lone prairie harmonica and the blues-tinged guitar all complement the lyrics and express the essential feeling far more effectively than the curiously-arranged original.
Jimmy McDonough succinctly summarized “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” thusly: “‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ is a doomy work with a mood that recurs throughout Young’s music: hope in the face of total despair, which somehow doesn’t sound like hope at all.” While that description is essentially accurate, it ignores the descriptive power carried in the imagery:
Old man lying by the side of the road
With the lorries rolling by
Blue moon sinking from the weight of the load
And the buildings scrape the sky
Cold wind ripping down the alley at dawn
And the morning paper flies
Dead man lying by the side of the road
With the daylight in his eyes
Young wrote the piece while on tour in London with CSN&Y (hence the lorries), but the imagery applies to any urban environment where people are indifferent to the homeless and dismissive of the aged. The reference to “castles burning” in the chorus represent the dashed hope of anyone trying to imagine a better world (a la “castles in the air”), a state of mind that is so seventies. The music is based on the suspended chord produced through DADGAG open tuning, and while most of the band step back and allow the overtones to do their work, Greg Reeves takes more liberties on the bass, adding variation and interest.
I also think McDonough is also off-base in his preference for the Crazy Horse version of “Birds,” preferring the full band treatment to the stark piano arrangement of the album version. I don’t consider the piano version “overly polished,” but a version with fewer distractions to allow the listener to focus on the lovely melody and harmonies. In the sub-genre of end-of-the-relationship songs, it’s one of my favorites, both comforting and firm at the same time, and unusual for its clarity in expressing loss.
And I violently disagree with Randy Newman’s characterization of the song that most reflects the sound of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, “When You Dance, I Can Really Love.” “‘When you dance, I can really love’ – I mean, that’s a stupid thing to say to a girl. It’s really low-end IQ – it isn’t above 100 – and Neil is not a low-IQ guy. He did it on purpose. That’s funny.” Dancing is an act that allows people to let loose, to face the risk of looking silly and just fucking going for it, to get in touch with the physical self and feel the delightfully baser emotions of love imbued with lust. Dance helps rid body and soul of repressive tendencies and allows for free expression of feelings too often buried. I love to dance and feel I’m a better person for it. In reading reviews of the song, more attention is focused on Jack Nitzsche’s piano contributions in the fade, but if it was so fucking great, why is it buried so deep in the mix? I’ll let Neil tell you why: “That group actually didn’t work as well as I would’ve liked. It was nice havin’ Jack with us, but some of the stuff, he was in the way tonally.” You can probably tell that Nitzsche’s piano doesn’t exactly knock me out either, but this one particularly upbeat song on the record does.
However, “When You Dance I Can Really Love” is a departure from the essential mood of the album, and we downshift pretty quickly to “I Believe in You,” a supposed-to-be-a-love-song marked by doubts and insecurity. The inconsistency of the emotions expressed tells us that this is not a a garden-variety love song but an honest expression of the vulnerability and uncertainty that pervades many relationships at one time or another. The piano here is particularly lovely, managing to capture both the tenderness and fragility of human relationships.
The second side-closing fragment sounds more like the boys got together in the living room after a few beers and had a little fun picking away. “Cripple Creek Ferry” was one of the songs intended for the end-of-the-world movie, which makes no sense at all. Let’s just say it’s a nice light ending to an emotionally-challenging album that will make absolutely no one forget about The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek.”
Mention of The Band brings up what is not unique about After the Gold Rush. The album was part of a massive shift in American-Canadian music in the late 60’s/early 70’s from rock to country, from psychedelic flourishes to more solid roots. Sweetheart of the Rodeo, John Wesley Harding, Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty and Neil’s own Harvest reflected this shift. Though the shift produced some great music, it always felt to me like a surrender, a step backward, a retreat into the tried-and-true. And while the United States was the model of progress in the first two-and-a-half decades of the postwar era, the country took a step backwards in the 70’s, mired in oil crises, stagflation, Watergate and high crime.
So yes, there was definitely a shift, and whether After the Gold Rush is the best album to represent the change from 60’s light to 70’s darkness is up for debate, but I would say that its funereal mood makes it a pretty strong contender.