Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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America's Imitation Worse Than Young's

A straight-world emissary asks whether they're just another Crosby, Stills and Nash and ,er, or what, and a counter-culturist gets angrier at the mention of the group than of the country; they ripped off their riffs from Steve Stills, he charges, and when Neil Young was on Cavett he used three acoustic guitars, too. But another friend comments: "Everyone complains that America is imitating Neil Young, but since they do it better than Neil Young does, I'm not complaining."

My friend is often wiser than she knows, but this time I think she has missed it. She tends to gasp whenever she hearts a certain harmony in "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," and this is bad practice. With Neil Young the rule seems to be: Don't hold your breath or your ears will pop.

After the Gold Rush was one of those geyser albums. After quitting the Buffalo Springfield and failing with his first solo LP in January, 1969, Young released Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere that May, and nowhere is where it went until he started to tour with Crosby, Stills and Nash in the fall. The pressure built while Nowhere achieved sales and airplay, and in August, 1970, almost a year later, Young erupted, as all that accumulated interest concentrated on one new album. After the Gold Rush was a million-seller before its release, and eventually had such broad success that Nowhere followed. Gold rush, indeed.

Young provided the X factor that made it possible to take Crosby, Stills and Nash seriously as a supergroup. Something in his gaunt bearing added a critical depth to all that glib harmony. He seemed strong, yet somehow breakable, and if David Crosby yowled about assassinations, well, Young communicated darker agonies without even bothering to make them explicit. On After the Gold Rush all that pain was less immediate, hence less threatening. The voice was softer, the jangling guitar muted behind a piano. Some of his old fans suspected Young was turning callow to match his new audience, and they may have been partly right, but most were won over, and so was nearly everyone else. Young could write "poetic" lyrics without falling flat on his metaphor, even when the subject was ecology or crumbling empire, and his melodies were impossible to dismiss. Moreover, the pain was still there. After the Gold Rush was a rarity: pleasant and substantial at the same time.

Soon the supertruce was over. Crosby, Stills and Nash issued solo albums from the studio and a live double-LP from what was apparently a final tour. The records sold predictably well, but on tour last spring Young emerged as the superduperstar, and the breath-holding began. The fourth album was due in August, but for months all anyone heard was the title: Harvest. Ahhh--reveries of Neil in all the rich wisdom of his years possessed his fans, but they sighed too soon. The album was promised for Christmas and never arrived. Finally, in January, there was a single, "Heart of Gold." Young isn't a singles artist, but it was an automatic smash even before the album appeared in February. For weeks, we all heard Neil tell us what a fine mind he has, once an hour.

I sound dubious because I am. The single doesn't hold up to Top 40 exposure; after a while you begin to mutter, "Aww, come on, Neil, your mind isn't that fine, and nobody's rushing for your heart, either." Young is too close to genius to make a bad album, and overanticipation has inspired overreaction, but my friend with the gasp is at least half right--he is imitating himself. The album fails by comparison. Minor lapses seem gross, inoffensive songs vapid.

But however ineffectively Young imitates himself, America does it worse. America is three Army brats who met in England and put out an album of acoustic ditties that went where everybody knows such albums are. The group, did, ahem, borrow riffs here and there, and their harmonies might sound like superharmonies if they weren't so flaccid, but only when the group released a new single, "A Horse with No Name," did the resemblance suddenly seem uncanny; the vocal sounded like Neil Young after a month of mono. Its instant success proved nothing if not that Neil had been sorely missed.

"A Horse with No Name" is kind of a cross between "American Pie" and El Topo, or, as a sardonic singer-songwriter whose anonymity is legendary put it: "It's this song about a kid who thinks he's taken acid." It vied with "Heart of Gold" for No. 1 the way the America album did with Harvest. Unlike the geyser, this sales pattern--call it the faucet--has been familiar since the '50s. You got a single, you sell an album.

Let's hope it stops there. "A Horse with No Name" has become unbearable, but it's truly catchy, a term no one who loves pop music can use pejoratively, and it does include one interesting conceit: "The ocean is a desert with its life underground and the perfect disguise above." The new single, "Sandman" is catchy, too, but trip-flop metaphors like "an eagle in the eye of a hurricane that's abandoned" are unforgiveable. The single ought to be "I Need You," a nice, soupy love song that could be covered by Bread. Neil Yung has at least earned his self-seriousness. America hasn't.

N'day, Apr. 16, 1972