Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Dusting ‘Em Off: Neil Young – On The Beach

on December 13, 2008, 11:45am

It may be called On The Beach, but Neil Young’s fifth studio album is anything but sunny. Recorded in the middle of Young’s classic years (1968-1979), it captured him at the peak of his fame and every burden that came with it: the hounding from the media, the loss of his friends to drug addictions, and the stalemate status of his bandmates in CSNY (despite David Crosby and Graham Nash contributing guitar and electric piano to two of the tracks). Couple that with Young’s disgust with the Nixon administration (in the thick of the Watergate scandal nonetheless), and you have the recipe for one angry album. But Young doesn’t stamp his feet and throw a tantrum. Instead he sits back and thinks of a way to persevere, cocooning himself in a meditative state while the world collapses around him.

Lyrically, the album sits on full tilt, the subject matter growing more dire with each track. While opener “Walk On” is a twangy, upbeat retrospective on Young’s career that would fit right in on his self-titled debut or Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, closer “Ambulance Blues” is a quiet, dismal discovery of human betrayal, a harmonica rasping acoustic haunt that talks about Nixon and CSNY as if they were shadows of demons Young encountered on the highway. “I never knew a man could tell so many lies,” he tiredly whispers. “He had a different story for every set of eyes.” But Young never sounds bitter.  He merely observes the atmosphere. You never get the impression that he’s defeated. But he doesn’t attempt to change things either. He merely accepts what is and continues his journey.

Most of the album’s scant eight tracks are elaborations on traditional blues structures, with Young peppering the repetitive scales and lyrics with his own guitar touches and quirks. Congas drive the title track, a slowed down, bleary eyed blues riff on the alienation of fame. “Vampire Blues” is more upbeat, a freewheeling jam that skewers the oil industry before that sort of thing was considered cool. Although Young would get more obvious with his politics in his later work ( “Let’s Impeach The President” from 2006’s Living With War comes to mind), he keeps it artful here, referring to oil mongers as plasma slurping creatures of the night. “I’m a vampire, baby, suckin’ blood from the Earth. Well I’m a vampire, babe, sell you twenty barrels worth,” he muses over a rough and tumble chord progression worthy of Muddy Waters.

More macabre imagery comes to play in the menacing stomper “Revolution Blues”. Backed by bassist Rick Danko and Levon “the only drummer that can make you cry” Helm, both of The Band, the album’s most rocking track draws references from Young’s meeting with Charles Manson while the future cult leader was still trying to make it as a musician. Using Manson’s worldview as a cracked lyrical stepping stone, Young laces the nervous track with apocalyptic imagery. With lyrics like “I see bloody fountains and ten million dune buggies comin’ down the mountains,” you wonder if the song was inspiration for the Mad Max movies.

One of the things that separates On The Beach from Young’s earlier work is its production. Young opts for a rawer, looser, live band feel than he had on his previous album, the polished, commercially country Harvest.  This is most apparent on “For The Turnstiles”, a ramshackle creaker featuring nothing but Young’s banjo and dual vocal harmonies shared with Ben Keith. Other stripped down tracks include “See The Sky About To Rain”, another tune bolstered by the rhythm section of The Band, and the excellent “Motion Pictures”, an almost silent testimony to Young’s then significant other (and mother of their son), actress Carrie Snodgress, heartbreaking in that they would split a year after the album was released.

Although not an initial commercial success, On The Beach has been recognized as one of Young’s best albums of his career. Today, it is a welcome listen, especially in an age where every older rock star feels the need to be loud and in your face with their anger. This isn’t to say Young’s newer work is disposable. It’s actually quite good (particularly the aforementioned Living With War), but it’s both interesting and enjoyable to sift through the shuddering sands of On The Beach, a relic from a time when Young being pissed also meant being boldly nonchalant. And some damn good songs.

Check Out:

On the Beach

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