After The Goldrush: Neil Young’s Most Underrated Albums

Lesser-heralded elements of his weighty catalogue...

In the Mount Rushmore of rock one of the first names mentioned has to be Neil Young. Since the late 1960s Young has been releasing fascinating, often flawless music. Unlike a lot of his peers from this period he is current, not resting on his laurels and still recording new music, without falling into the ‘nostalgia act’ circuit.

As happens with legacy acts there is fawning over certain albums – ‘Harvest’, ‘After the Goldrush’, ‘Homegrown’ etc – but other solid albums get overlooked. While thinking about his slightly overlooked albums I came up with a shortlist of about a dozen ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ (1979), ‘Ragged Glory’ (1990) ‘Sleeps With Angels’ (1994),  ‘Broken Arrow’ (1996), ‘Prairie Wind’ (2006), ‘A Letter Home’ (2014) and 2021’s ‘Barn’ to name a few, but the albums selected are the ones that I’ve played the most over the years. The ones that mean something to me and the ones that, quite frankly, rock. 

Time Fades Away (1973)

‘Time Fades Away’ is probably Neil Young’s first truly overlooked album. It came on the heels of his biggest success 1972’s ‘Harvest’. It is the first of the ‘Ditch Trilogy’ that included ‘Tonight’s the Night’ and ‘On the Beach’. After the massive critical, and commercial, success of ‘Harvest’ Young was a middle of the road artist. He quickly became bored of this new fame and “headed for the ditch”.

‘Time Fades Away’ is a live album but featured previously unreleased songs. The title track feels like a barroom band letting rip. Despite Crazy Horse not backing him on this tour, this feels like the blueprint sound for future Crazy Horse albums – swaggering bass, driving drums and a catchy chorus.

‘Journey Through the Past’ is features just Young on piano and vocals so its slower, more reflective. It shows him mythologising his career to date. This is something he would continue to do throughout his career. What makes this so remarkable is he’d be recording for about a decade at this point. Such an old head on a young body. ‘Don’t Be Denied’ is another full band number, but this time its more thoughtful.

What makes ‘Time Fade Away’ a delight is the audio verité nature of the songs. He’s starting to write about what he sees around him, elongating form, rather than intro-verse, chorus, verse, outro. Young is also sowing the seeds that if he’s not feeling something he’ll do something else. In the 1980s he did this with another trilogy of albums: the leftfield vocoder-heavy ‘Trans’; rockabilly vibes on ‘Everybody’s Rockin’; the country tinge of ‘Old Ways’. Despite positive reviews, and selling over a million copies, it wasn’t the album fans wanted. In 2017 the album finally got a re-issue, after decades of well, fading away. Now a new generation of fans can bask in a brave album made by someone who wasn’t going to play the game and wanted to do it his way. 

Mirror Ball (1995)

In 1995 Young was leaning into this Godfather of Grunge moniker by teaming up with Pearl Jam to release an album that seems to have dropped out of mainstream approval. Which is a shame as its an absolute monster.

Neil Young and Pearl Jam weren’t strangers to each other. Pearl Jam were covering ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ on their 1992 tour, and they were Young’s opening act on his 1993 world tour. So, a collaboration was always on the cards. The resulting album feels like the sequel to Young’s 1969 classic ‘Everybody Knows This is Nowhere’ without ever treading old ground. ‘Song X’ opens the album with a sea shanty. Yeah, didn’t see that one coming either, but it melds both sounds well and the lyric “Hey ho away we go / We’re on the road to never” feels like a mantra not just for the album but for Young’s career at times.

The album took four days to record live in the studio with Young writing the majority of the songs the day before they recorded. This gives the album an audio verité feel. He’s writing about what’s around him, rather than carefully planning it all out. There is a power and vitalogy here. The usual themes are on display love, life, redemption and mortality, but they have an immediacy that is missing on some of his albums.

Dead Man (1996)

Neil Young followed up ‘Mirror Ball’ with a score to the Jim Jarmusch film Dead Man. The film centres around an accountant William Blake, played by Johnny Depp, travelling from Ohio to a frontier town called Machine for a job at the metal works. When he arrives, the position has already been filled and he’s told point blank by the metal work’s owner, he’s also aiming a rifle at Blake, that he’s jobless. Blake then goes on a drinking binge, meets Thel in a bar and ends up at hers. Then the trouble starts. Thel is an ex-prostitute, who now makes paper flowers, and her ex-boyfriend Charlie surprises them together. Charlie accidently kills Thel, and mortally wounds Blake, before Blake kills Charlie. Blake is on the run for murder.

The remainder of the film is a surrealist, psychedelic western. Blake meets bizarre bounty hunters, trappers, indigenous people and shop keepers. It’s a blast but underpinning it all is Young’s score.

It’s entirely improvised as Young watched the scenes and played his trusty electric guitar Old Black over it. There are some acoustic guitars, piano and organ in there but mostly its just Neil and his favourite axe cutting loose.

The album is interspersed with Johnny Depp reading William Blake poetry, dialogue from the film and filed recordings. The results are experimental, haunting and one of the most memorable albums Young has made that you’ve (probably!) never heard.

On a personal note, it was this film, and score, which made me a Neil Young fan. It showed me that as well as writing banger after banger he could always cut loose and get abstract. I’ve always wanted Young to make a studio album like ‘Dead Man’ as it would be fascinating. So far, he hasn’t but Young never really does what you’d expect.

Greendale (2003)

In 2003 Neil Young released his 25th studio album ‘Greendale’. Here the songwriter pushed himself lyrically and released a concept/musical novel of an album.

Cantered around the fictional Californian seaside town Greendale we learn the history of the Green family. For this album Young brought in his backing band Crazy Horse. There is something special when Young and Crazy Horse get together. The songs become larger and more impactful than if he was playing with session ringers.

Throughout the album we learn more about the family and the town. The plot revolves around the Earl Green, his great-nephew Jed and his granddaughter Sun. Jed accidently shoots a cop. Earl has a heart attack when a reporter wants the story/gossip from him. Sun then becomes an eco-warrior before the FBI get involved and she leaves town. Oh, and the Devil is in there too.

Across the run-time Neil Young tells us about his feelings on mass media consumption, its bad, environmentalism, we need to look after the place a lot better and getting older. It’s a pretty great story, but it’s the songs, and lyrics, which make it a delight. On ‘Double E’ Young sings: When Edith and Earl renamed the Double E, They nearly made history. The locals rose up and some of them were mad as hell, ‘Cause it used to be the Double L.” It’s the playful lyrics like this that really make the album a delight.

Rumour has it that the songs were written, and recorded, in order and Neil Young didn’t really know the next part until he’d picked up his guitar and written it. The album featured a DVD that showed Young playing the album with Crazy Horse live in the studio – indeed, he also made a film to accompany the album.

Filmed on Super 8 and cast with friends and family each song has its own video where the actors lip-synch to Young’s words while acting out the story of the album. It’s fun lost curio that works well as it fleshes out Young’s words and makes the story more concrete in your mind. The isn’t the only adaption though. Seven years after the album’s release Vertigo Comics published a graphic novel based on the album.

Written by Joshua Dysart (Violent Messiahs, Swamp Thing, etc), and illustrated by Cliff Chiang (Paper Girls, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, etc). It’s a fun companion piece as it fleshes out the back story a bit more and fills in some gaps.

Chromes Dreams II (2007)

The early 2000s was when I was in my peak Young obsession and the next new album that came out was ‘Chrome Dreams II’. Its safe to say I devoured it. Its title is a reference to a 1977 album, ‘Chrome Dreams’, which was shelved so that ‘American Stars ‘N Bars’ could be released. ‘Chromes Dreams’ would finally be released in 2023 to universal praise.

Before the release of ‘Chrome Dreams II’ some part of the Young fandom thought this might be new versions of that album, but the songs here are all new. Well, kind of. Some of the songs had been rattling around in Young’s head for decades. ‘Ordinary People’ was meant to feature on his 1988 album ‘This Note’s for You’, but it wasn’t used. Sometimes he’d play it live, but it wasn’t officially released until ‘Chrome Dreams II’.

Neil Young has said that as the promotional musical landscape was different in 2007 than it was in the 70s, and 80s, mainly radio plays aren’t as important as they once were, he could take more risks and have a message that runs through everything. One risk was releasing longer songs. ‘Chrome Dreams II’ features two songs that are over the 14-minute mark.

At 18 minutes long ‘Ordinary People’ is one of the longer songs Young has written. Despite being the third track on the album it feels like the centrepiece that holds everything together. Like a lot of Young’s great songs, it’s about, well, ordinary people and their lives and struggles. Crime, paying bills on time, drug use and a slew of other things get mentioned. What’s great about it is that it still resonates now, 17 years after its release, as it did at the time. While ‘Chrome Dreams II’ wasn’t the initial homerun I was hoping for it was a hell of a lot of fun and one I’ve returned to again and again. 

Le Noise (2010)

I think its safe to say that 2010’s ‘Le Noise’ is probably my favourite Neil Young album. After a career of concept albums, 18-minute tracks, companion films, collaborations and avant-garde soundtracks Neil Young stripped it all back to what matters: him and a guitar.

Looking at the cover to the album, it tells the story. In hazy black and white Neil Young is standing between two pillars playing his beloved Old Black and singing into a microphone. And that’s what you get.

The songs are a mixture of old and new. ‘Hitchhiker’ came from the sessions for the 1975 album ‘Zuma’. The themes are war, ‘Love and War’, environmentalism, ‘Peaceful Valley Boulevard’ and love/relationships, ‘Walk with Me’ and ‘Sign of Love’. The title of the album is a clever pun. It reflects the fractured sound to the majority of the recordings and to the producer Daniel Lanois, who recorded it at his home in makeshift studios, giving the album the same intimate, immediate, vibe as ‘Mirror Ball’.

The standout track is ‘Love and War’. The song opens with the line “When I Sing about love and War, I don’t really know what I’m saying”. This comes from Young’s conflicted feelings. On his 2006 album ‘Living with War’ Young is very scathing on global conflicts, but here its almost like he doesn’t really know what else to say and do.

In an interview with NPR, he said: “Because they’re very deep subjects. You can’t possibly know what it means to somebody else. War to one person may mean a justified thing that’s happening for a very good reason, and another person may think that’s a terrible thing and never should have happened. And another person will be thinking that he lost his sister or his brother or his mother in the war and it was a waste of time. And another person could be thinking the exact opposite: that his brother went to war and gave his life for our country. So, you can’t really have an opinion, although I have opinions and I’ve had them, and I’ve made very loud statements about things. But that’s the way I felt at the time”.

Despite – or rather, because of – these strong themes ‘Le Noise’ is a glorious album. It’s the sound of someone, over 40 years into their career, still loving what they do. You can tell that Young is having a ball wailing on guitar. Listening back, it reminds me of his early acoustic folk albums/live shows and how even after all these years he still manages to have something vital to say and is, roughly, doing it in the same vein, but with slightly different vibes. ‘Le Noise’ lives up to its name.

Words: Nick Roseblade

Join the Clash mailing list for up to the minute music, fashion and film news.