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Lyrics Analysis of On The Beach
The Sands Of Time by Stephen Holden
Neil Young's "On The Beach" album review re-published in The Rolling Stone Files book, 1994
Since his days with the Buffalo Springfield, the shifts in Neil Young's preoccupations have presented a barometer of a generation's attitudes toward itself, reflecting the dissolution of political idealism and, beyond that, the end of the romance of youth itself. Even in such early ballads as "Sugar Mountain" and "I Am a Child," Young gently warned against living with the illusion of perpetual youth, while his childlike vocals tantalized us with the possibility. The pain of facing adult reality at an age and in an era that encouraged prolonged adolescent fantasy comprised the underlying theme of Young's first three solo albums, a trilogy that culminated in After the Gold Rush, perhaps the quintessential turn-of-the-decade album by a folk-rock soloist.
Whereas Bob Dylan's music formed the aesthetic spear-head of generational rage and moral fervor in the mid-Sixties, Young's subsequently expressed, with equal credibility, the accompanying guilt, self-doubt and paranoia, especially in its obsession with time and age. Ironically, Young achieved superstar status with his most compromised album, Harvest, a sweetened rehash of ideas from After the Gold Rush. But Young resisted the temptation to venture further toward the MOR (ed. middle of road) style that had clinched his audience; and his live album, Time Fades Away, released two years after Harvest, came as a rude about-face.
On The Beach is Neil Young's best album since After the Gold Rush. Though a studio album, its sound is raw and spare, as bracing as Dylan's Planet Waves. Mostly self-produced, On The Beach boasts fine instrumental support, notably by guitarist Ben Keith (who shares vocals with Young on two cuts), Rusty Kershaw (fiddle and slide guitar on two cuts), and Band members Rick Danko (bass) and Levon Helm (drums) on the album's most exciting track, "Revolution Blues."
The hard-edged sound of On The Beach is a contributing factor to its greatness, since the album poses aesthetic and political questions too serious to be treated prettily. Through various opposed personae, Young evokes primary social and psychic polarities that exemplify the deterioration of American culture. Though not named, the figures of Charles Manson and Patricia Hearst appear as emblems of apocalyptic social dislocation in the album's two masterpieces, "Revolution Blues" and "Ambulance Blues." In each song, by empathizing with the emotions of both predators and victims, Young has dared what no other major white rock artist (except John Lennon) has - to embrace, expose and perhaps help purge the collective paranoia and guilt of an insane society, acting it out without apology or explanation.
"Walk On," a succinct rejection of Sixties fantasies, revolves around a bitter observation about growing up: "Sooner or later it all gets real / Walk on." "See the Sky About To Rain" and "For The Turnstiles," tremulous, fatalistic ballads, encompass images of violence, corruption and disintegration, their meanings contained in their cryptic titles, each a slogan, a mantra, a scrawl of graffiti. The driving, terrifying vision of "Revolution Blues" is counterpointed by the equally horrifying "Vampire Blues."
Two ballads, "Motion Pictures" and "Ambulance Blues," feature Young singing almost an octave lower than normal and sounding for the first time in his career morally arrogant. "On The Beach," the seven-minute title cut, is the album's most questionable inclusion, a lethargic, whining meditation on the reasons not to remain psychically isolated in Los Angeles. It shows Young immersed in self-pity - one of the taboos of rock that Young has long sought to redeem. Though Young's weariness of civilization also supplies the theme of "Motion Pictures," it is melodically fluent and the album's only direct message of love.
The nine-minute "Ambulance Blues," which closes the album, is the tour de force of Young's recording career. Doubling on acoustic guitar and harmonica and backed by Kershaw's eloquent fiddling, Young summarizes his entire musical/political past, beginning with the idealism of "the old folkie days," then impressionistically evoking specific social traumas, among them Watergate and the Hearst saga. He addresses us with a populist truism which he repeats in a voice that quietly spits in our faces: "You're all just pissin' in the wind." The last verse cites Nixon as both symptom and cause of a predicament that is frightening beyond comprehension:
On The Beach is one of the most despairing albums of the decade, a bitter testament from one who has come through the fire and gone back into it.
On The Beach
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