Stephen Holden

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Since his days with 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 spearhead 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. (pp. 98-9)

On The Beach is Neil Young's best album since After the Gold Rush. Though a studio album, its sound is raw and spare….

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."… [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….

"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."…

"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….

The nine-minute "Ambulance Blues," which closes the album, is the tour de force of Young's recording career….

"Ambulance Blues" stands as an epic lamentation, as irrefutable a piece of song-poetry as Paul Simon's "American Tune" and Jackson Browne's "For Everyman." I could not imagine anyone but Young singing it.

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. (p. 99)

Stephen Holden, "Neil Young: The Sands of Time," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1974; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 170, September 26, 1974, pp. 98-9.

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