On The Beach is a weary, spacey postcard from the fringes of sanity. Things have changed: the sixties are over, money’s getting tight, friends are dispersed, perhaps gone for good. The title track captures the ennui: “All my pictures have fallen/From where I placed them yesterday.” There’s a bitterness here as well, toward friends and even the audience, but it’s all filtered through Neil’s unassailable sense of morality. This is a great little record, unfortunately neglected, half-remembered like the Cadillac buried in the sand on the cover.
The album opens with the wounded but defensive “Walk On,” a kiss-off to old friends who’ve been doing him wrong. It might be about CSN: “Then the money was not so good…” But it works as a universal statement of purpose, of quiet strength, and it’s a perfect opener to this fiercely independent, solitary minded album. I love the sound of “See The Sky About To Rain” with the rudimentary keyboard and the subtle pedal steel accompaniment on the chorus. The old time folky “For The Turnstiles,” with its moral about the crowds turning away from a losing baseball team, may be the most personal track on here – something tells me that it was borne of personal experience, of Neil’s own dwindling or unappreciative audience. The closing acoustic epic “Ambulence Blues” is similarly defensive, but the numerous verses become a bit tedious – “Desolation Row” this is not. “Vampire Blues” is another odd one, a simple metaphor about oilmen “sucking blood from the earth” that doesn’t do much with its basic blues structure. And “Revolution Blues” (see a trend?) is the strangest one of them all, with a narrator inhabiting a cult mentality, perhaps reflecting Manson and certainly portending future darkness of the same ilk; of all the “revolution” reflections of the sixties rock, this one really inhabits the true insanity of any form of mob violence.
The centerpiece is the title track, a dreary masterpiece of a moody atmosphere. Again, audience fears emerge: “I see a crowd of people/But I can’t face them day to day.” The minor chords of the verses contrast with the even more dispiriting cmaj7/fmaj7 chorus; this is a song that says a lot with very little, musically and lyrically. It’s built almost as a blues tune, but without the formulaic style of basic blues changes. Witness as well the trademark choppy style of the solo, which sounds like a one-take with foul notes and all but captures the mood quite well. Mood is what this album is all about. Sadness, bitterness, insanity. Triumph? Sort of: “Though your confidence may be shattered/It doesn’t matter.”