Only Love Can Break Your Heart

Neil Young

Song Review by Bill Janovitz

Neil Young could crank out some of the meanest-sounding heavy guitar chords and solos at one moment, and some of the prettiest, dulcet pop-folk melodies the next. He has always seemed perfectly capable of tossing off sweet, country-infused campfire songs like "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" at will. On the album After the Gold Rush (1970), for example, Young has this song, and also the electric, incendiary "Southern Man." And his career has usually switched back and forth between these two modes -- both sides can be heard, for example, on the excellent live album Live Rust (1979) -- as well as a famous extended period of experimentation in the '80s that saw him trying on new wave, R&B, country, and some other genres. But thankfully, he always finds time for the sublimely lovely songs like "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," which went into the Top 40 in 1970. And its success probably did not discourage the songwriter from recording the largely acoustic Harvest and its number one single, "Heart of Gold," a year later. "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" is the sort of song that is at once inimitable in style and yet almost universal in appeal and sentiment -- perhaps to the point of seeming trite; the words are sort an update of sort on Tin Pan Alley songs like "You Always Hurt the One You Love," and the wistful melody feels like it has also been around forever, though one would be hard-pressed to find it somewhere else. "I have a friend I've never seen/He hides his head inside a dream/Someone should call him and see if he can come out/Try to lose the down that he's found," Young sings, expressing the angst and the innocence of young love. Three chords -- that's all it takes to handle the verse and the chorus both. And Young wisely chooses not to gussy it up; acoustic guitar, piano, bass, some three-part harmonies, and that trademark Neil Young 3/4-time kick-and-snare beat are the only instrumentation. For a change in the arrangement, the harmonies carry over into the third verse, which leads directly into the title refrain, skipping the chorus, for the end of the song.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
After the Gold Rush 1970 Reprise 3:09
After the Gold Rush/Harvest 1973 Warner Bros. 0:00
Neil Young [Bootleg] 1991 Silver Shadow 3:29
Greatest Hits 2004 Reprise / Warner Bros. 3:11
Neil Young Archives, Vol. I (1963-1972) 2009 Reprise / Warner Bros. 4:16
Neil Young Archives, Vol. I (1963-1972) [Video] 2009 Reprise 0:00
100 Greatest Heartbreak
Various Artists
Rhino 3:09
100 Greatest Sad Songs
Various Artists
Rhino 3:09