Neil Young recorded the After The Gold Rush album after the Déjà Vu tour with his band Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, a taxing trek that fractured the band. "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" was rumored to be about Steven Stills, who alienated his bandmates by referring to them as his "back-up singers" on stage, but Young later admitted it was about one of his other bandmates, Graham Nash, who was heartbroken after breaking up with Joni Mitchell.
This was Neil Young's first Top 40 hit as a solo artist. His commercial zenith came with "Heart of Gold
," a #1 single from his next album, Harvest
Young's former bandmate Steven Stills is one of many to cover this song, releasing it on his 1984 album Right by You. Other notable covers are by Jackie DeShannon, Elkie Brooks, Rickie Lee Jones, and Florence and The Machine.
In Shakey, Jimmy McDonough writes that Young's own sheet music for this song has a sketch of Young in the '70s, the archetypal "forlorn, lonely troubadour with a guitar."
"With the massive success of his past two albums and the work with CSN," McDonough writes, "Young had created a persona that would prove so indelible some would never know him as anything else."
This is the first track on After The Gold Rush. The entire album is acoustic.
The English band Saint Etienne had a hit in 1990 with their cover version of this song. It peaked at #39 on the UK Singles Chart and two years later became the group's only entry in the US Billboard Hot 100, when it reached #97. Pete Wiggs of St Etienne recalled to Q magazine July 2012 regarding their version: "The official reaction from the Neil camp was, He has heard it. Not exactly ringing praise." He added: "(BBC Radio 1 DJ) Nicky Campbell once smashed our version live on air on his radio show. He was so outraged by what we'd done."
Young performed this on the 1970 Déjà Vu tour with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young months before it was released. On this tour, it was common for each member to perform a solo song - they would sometimes perform each other's songs.
A version by Everlast was used in the 1999 Adam Sandler movie Big Daddy.