Few albums can claim to be as iconic as Neil Young’s Harvest. It is a record that straddled the seldom sustained pop-culture boundary of commercial and critical success. 1972 was a year that saw the release of David Bowie’s groundbreaking The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, The Rolling Stones’ rollicking Exile on Main St. and Stevie Wonder’s sweet and soulful Talking Book. Yet, none were able to out-sell Harvest in America.
Following on from the seminal success of After the Gold Rush, Young strung together back to back masterpieces, both similar in terms of musicology, but this only shows that the genteel songwriting of Young is perhaps when he is at his best.
The album is driven by harmonic melodies and drenched in wistful dreaminess that brings to mind the sort of harvest moon that he would later sing about. Young, himself, regarded this record as his finest release; retrospectively commenting: “I think Harvest is probably the finest record I’ve ever made.” It is a statement that many fans would agree with, but that is not to say that it is without its critics or moments of contention, making it all the more relevant to sift the great from the good.
Despite the blueprint plans to make a straight up and down “country album”, there is rather more wayward nuance to dissect as Young shows signs of the richly varied career that lay ahead. The steel-guitar sounds and simple strumming may well form the backbone, but there are strings, solo’s and backing-vocals all adding extra meet to the solid skeleton of classic country tunes.
Sometimes brilliant, sometimes lingering close to that rarified word of ‘greatest’ and sometimes, well, less-so; there are peaks and troughs on Young’s most famous work, but it is never ever boring and it solidified the folky foothold of one of music’s most influential stars.
Neil Young’s album Harvest ranked from worst to best:
10. ‘A Man Needs a Maid’
The sentiment of this song was outdated even upon release. It led to protestation from the second-wave feminist movement and left diehard fans scratching their heads in search of a defence. Although there is an argument that Young’s intention was in fact the opposite, to empower women by flouting his own inadequacies, there’s too much ambiguity to be playing around on such slippery terrain unless the ironies are more open and the post-modernist contrasts more clear. The fact that the defence remains cloudy is not the failing of a close-minded listener, but a songwriter for once struggling to put his point across.
Subject matter aside, the songs sweeping tones fail to save it from the relegation zone of the album, although light and melodic, the tune struggles to be as impressionable as the other ballads. A middle eight immediately following a chorus is an interesting and innovative choice, but one that, sadly, makes the song all the more disjointed.
It wouldn’t be a Neil Young song, however, without a little bit of lyrical wizardry as he laments his loneliness and exile in art as he chokes out, “To give a love, you gotta live a love / To live a love, you gotta be part of.”
9. ‘There’s a World’
If you’ve hired the London Symphony Orchestra to appear on an album then you’re definitely going to use them. With ‘There’s a World’, Young has perhaps tried to get too much of his money’s worth. The track is Scott Walker-like in scope, but it fails to pull off the cinematic sound in quite the same way, sounding closer to pompous than powerful.
Whilst the song itself may not be a success, it certainly adds a layer of intrigue to the album, sitting seven tracks in it breaks the country mould, but for all the soaring it sadly only proves Young to be a daring songwriter and nothing more.
8. ‘Are You Ready for the Country?‘
With Neil Young on piano, The Stray Gators laying down the rest of the instrumentation, David Crosby and Graham Nash providing harmonising backing vocals and recording taking place on Young’s ranch, the track is a romp in the rooting tooting style of old.
With a melody landing very much on the nose, you could be forgiven for not paying enough attention to the lyrics, which sit very much in contrast to the tune. The verse “I was talkin’ to the preacher / Said God was on my side / Then I ran into the hangman / He said it’s time to die,” hints at a darker backstory for the song, more akin the to the bluesy backbone underneath all the fancy flourishes of a band very much having fun. Country music legend Waylon Jennings took over production on this song, and it bears his fingerprints all over it, with it he has achieved a good-time that stands out as a bit of jollity but nothing more.
With this title track, Young reveals a playfulness as a songwriter. He divulges a one-way barrage of questions at a would-be lover with the skill of the seasoned artist he was. The arrangement is simple and bears the album’s most elemental sounds, resulting in an easy-listening little ditty.
Although the track might not reach the heights of some of the records more triumphant successes, there is a strong feeling that that was never the intended fate of the title track, it merely lays down a mantra for the others to follow. The quirky premise elevates this beyond simply being a pleasant waltz and, amidst a lesser record, it would surely prove to be more than a stellar album track.
6. ‘Words (Between the Lines of Age)‘
The triumphant closer of the album is another track that eviscerates the records straightforward briefing of simply “a country album” in an exalted way that proves the depth to Neil Young’s songwriting, depths which over his career we have gladly been able to plunder. This track lays the cornerstone to some of the Crazy Horses records that would follow, with heavy chord stabs, distorted guitar lines, and fantastically simple yet soaring solos like the one-note solo of ‘Cinnamon Girl’ on his 1969 release Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.
The lyricism also goes up a level on this track, with glinting flecks of poeticism that cut through the riffs with lines like, “Washing your windows / And shining your stars / Thinking your mind / Was my own in a dream / What would you wonder / And how would it seem?”, that is frankly fantastic wordplay and the sort of poignant mysticism that has led to many of the greats touting him as an influence. This brooding closer is a fitting finale to a classic album.
There is perhaps an argument that ‘Alabama’ is a little bit self-derivative, as it cuts a very similar sound to that which was achieved on After the Gold Rush, but quite frankly who gives a damn? To accuse someone of sitting in the same groove would be a harsh criticism on only their fourth record. and it is a sound that is ineffably Neil Young alone, to boot.
‘Alabama’ is another song with strong Crazy Horse overtones as once again he punches through distorted guitar work. He punches his way through distorted lyrics too as he viscerally points a quivering finger at the troubled American state.
Powerfully, Young probes and cajoles ultimately urging on the forging of a progressive coalition. The song has the snaky pedal-steel stylings of the South and simply asks them to join in with a more harmonious union with the message of the song. It is a bold song both in its simple heavy sound and political scope. The production is uninvolved, lending a raucous live feel to the track that helps punch the message passionately home.
4. ‘Out on the Weekend‘
Ben Keith’s pedal playing provides this iconic opener with its trademark sound, cut sparsely across a simple repetitive rhythm and interspersed harmonica harpings; there is a haunting quality to this tale of a yearning, searching, lost young man. The lyrics form a perfect marriage with the melody. Lines like, “full of joy he can’t relate to, floating in a dreamy sort of sadness,” could almost be rearranged and repurposed to explain the sound of the song.
There is an emotional ambivalence to both the words and the sound, which carefully treads a dramatic narrative, never straining to be something it isn’t. There is joy in the song, but there is an undercurrent of sadness too which either inadvertently or by design captures the great musical dirge of the ’70s that rang out as a comedown when the prelapsarian swashbuckling ’60s inevitably fell on its arse. This lament is like an ode that loss of innocence when Kerouac’s original folk dream was over.
Underneath it all is a catchy hook that plods the song along on its mellow journey. There is a genuine class to the instrumentation that goes to show you don’t have to be racing through chord changes or blasting off a pentatonic to exude musical skill.
3. ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’
The harrowing tale of this Heroin jeremiad is that Young’s friend and Crazy Horses bandmate, Danny Whitton, would die of an overdoes the same year that the song was released. The song captures the haunts of both what was occurring within the music scene and what was to come. Later Bruce Berry, a roadie and friend of Young’s would also die of a fatal heroin overdose.
These horrors were transposed onto the record without any dressing up or down, taken directly from a live recording at Royce Hall, UCLA, IN 1971. The whole furore of Young’s unabated sadness and woe at the weary narcotic that was blighting lives cuts right through and could haunt an empty house. When looking back at the classic rock it can be easy to laugh at the high-jinks and frolics of a substance saturated world, but Young tempers this naive narrative with some hard home truths. This is the geat anti-drug song.
2. ‘Heart of Gold’
There have been very few pieces of music ever written that register on almost every person’s radar as a piece of pop culture gold. This is a single that has survived through the eras and still resides on the radio-waves today, without ever being kitsch or trifling.
Originally this track was performed on the piano as part of an early incarnation of ‘A Man Needs a Maid’ until Young worked out a divorce and ‘Heart of Gold’ got the better half the deal. The songs delicate arrangement and interweaving of instruments were as much out of necessity as it was an act of creative brilliance. Written at the height of Young’s chronic back pain, he could not stand to play his heavy electric for long and thus blended it with softer acoustic tones to allow him to play it. Music is full of these fortunate strokes of fate, but scarcely with better results than ‘Heart of Gold’.
Although some might describe it as lacking the nuance of some of his less radio-friendly work, there is still a call for poppy concision, and that’s what Young captures with his biggest hit. Sometimes nuance doesn’t come across, and here Young proves that straightforward can be just as effective.
1. ‘Old Man’
In the dusty depths of youtube lingers a live BBC performance of this song and it captures such an enthralling spirit that any viewer should just about be able to recite even the intro schtick word for word. The recorded version is hardly any different; there is brooding spiritualism as Young howls out “Old Man take a look at my life I’m a lot like you.”
In the movie Heart of Gold, Young describes being a “rich hippie” for the first time and buying his ranch off an elderly couple, before introducing the song with the following bit of remembered dialogue with the Old Man himself: “Well, tell me, how does a young man like yourself have enough money to buy a place like this?” And I said, “Well, just lucky, Louis, just real lucky.” And he said, “Well, that’s the darnedest thing I ever heard.” And I wrote this song for him.”
Well, ain’t that the darndest thing indeed! Like all the best traditional folk songs, this finds poignancy in universality and humanity in the humble. It leaves you trying to figure how something so delicate can pack such a punch. There’s a handful of absolute gems on the record but ‘Old Man’ is the one that it would be lost without.