Neil Young — Reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of “Harvest” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Neil Young — Reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of “Harvest”

The Album First Came Out on February 1, 1972

Feb 01, 2022 Bookmark and Share

While initially perplexing both fans and critics upon its February 1972 release, Neil Young’s quicksilver fourth record stands as one of his most eclectic solo efforts, as rough and hard rocking as it is pensive and introspective, with lyrics plumbing the depths of the innovative and controversial singer/songwriter’s creative soul, yielding vivid elegies to uncertainty and alienation, and disconcerted screeds, both personal and political. Less an expansion upon its predecessor’s mellowed-out country rock sensibilities than a mournful reimagining, Young’s greatly anticipated follow-up to 1970’s After the Gold Rush is as equally steeped in the wafting San Mateo County fog of its creator’s homebase as in the neon glow of Nashville, beneath which many of its finest inclusions were written and recorded. This dichotomy—east and west, country and rock, doubt and certainty, intro- and extrospection—would come to characterize the brunt of Young’s future output, his apparent emotional and aesthetic leanings varying upon each release. Harvest, in all its sadness, rage, and humanity, possesses a certain artistic purity achieved once, perhaps twice, in a great career.

Crafted between January and September 1971, Harvest is very much a “road” album, having been recorded at various locations internationally, from Young’s own Broken Arrow Studio No. 2 in Northern California to Nashville’s Quadrafonic Sound Studios with producer Elliot Mazer, and London’s Barking Assembly Hall with producer/bandmate Jack Nitzsche and the London Symphony Orchestra.

The album’s often transient nature can be fathomed immediately on the wistful “Out on the Weekend,” one of popular music’s greatest opening cuts, in Young’s contemplation, “Think I’ll pack it in and buy a pick-up/Take it down to L.A.” The track in question serves as one of the album’s more recognizable country/folk-centered numbers, many of which populate the majority of its superb first side. Here, the listener finds Young distraught, conflicted by feelings of detachment and pining, as he proclaims, “See the lonely boy, out on the weekend/Trying to make it pay/Can’t relate to joy, he tries to speak and/Can’t begin to say.” The track’s bare, muted instrumentals seem to amplify the grand wash of heartache conveyed through Young’s vocals, rendering “Out on the Weekend” one of his most affecting performances.

Perhaps over all else, it has been Young’s penchant for straightforward emotional honesty, as gleaned on many of Harvest’s key entries, which has kept his career-long intensity largely intact. In this spirit, the album’s highest point arrives shortly thereafter in the form of its devastating title track. “Harvest’s” simplistic, lamplit country waltz casts a certain familiarity upon Young’s cryptic lyrics, as he inquires, “Will I see you give more than I can take?/Will I only harvest some?” For an even deeper impact, look no farther than Paul Thomas Anderson’s intuitive use of the song in 2014’s entirely underrated Inherent Vice, which contains what is perhaps the ultimate visual embodiment of “Harvest’s” melancholic nature. Subsequently, the orchestral “A Man Needs a Maid”—the first of the album’s two London Symphony Orchestra collaborations—cuts deeply, heavily saturated in moist, occasionally gaudy, but always stunning strings. Young outdoes himself lyrically upon describing the dawn of a significant infatuation, singing, “A while ago somewhere I don’t know when/I was watching a movie with a friend/I fell in love with the actress/She was playing a part that I could understand.” The year in question would have been 1970, the movie: Diary of a Mad Housewife, starring the late Carrie Snodgress, about whom, Young later revealed, much of Harvest was written.

“Heart of Gold,” which peaked at number one on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart, saw contributions from fellow L.A. luminaries Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. Despite it becoming a major hit, and arguably one of the most popular songs of the decade, Young has been dismissive of “Heart of Gold,” claiming it put him “in the middle of the road”—and was not alone in his sentiment. Bob Dylan also voiced his distaste for the track, feeling that Young had attempted too ardently to imitate him. Rounding out Side 1 on an oddly upbeat note, “Are You Ready for the Country?” distracts the listener at first from Young’s dour doomsaying with its innocuous backwater romping. Nitzsche’s piano and lap steel guitar work, as well as David Crosby and Graham Nash’s backing vocals add a bit more intrigue to this overlooked gem.

Side 2 opener “Old Man,” on which Ronstadt and Taylor return to lend their respective talents, finds Young at his most reflective. A bonafide classic and fan favorite, the track benefits from Taylor’s stark banjo picking, complementing Young’s timeless musing, “Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were.” Even more impressive still, he sang those words in his mid-20s, placing him alongside the likes of contemporary Jackson Browne, both quite obviously possessing tired eyes and ancient souls. The simultaneously foreboding and assuring “There’s a World,” Harvest’s second Nitzsche-produced orchestral piece, is often panned as being the album’s worst cut. This could not be further from the truth, as much of what Nitzsche touched in his time turned to solid pop gold. Certainly, this crushingly baroque composition may feel out of place on what is essentially an early-’70s country rock record, but it is still so expertly-composed, sleekly-produced, and stunningly unique—perhaps the farthest from himself that Neil Young had ever been at that point.

Fuzzed-out political statement “Alabama” serves as Harvest’s first sincere rocker, despite its well-intentioned, albeit clumsy lyricism, later derided by Young himself as “accusatory and condescending.” The track, along with 1970’s “Southern Man,” would serve as an inspiration for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s hit “Sweet Home Alabama,” released two years later. Despite this, “Alabama” is melodically tight, featuring backing vocals from Crosby and Stephen Stills, with a grit and stomp that makes it impossible to dismiss entirely. Funerary heroin dirge “The Needle and the Damage Done,” recorded live at UCLA’s Royce Hall in January ’71, still rings true, effectively haunting, even five decades on. “Every junkie’s like a setting sun,” laments Young, reflecting upon the legions of greats since lost to the needle, as though turning loose their respective ghosts into the listener’s bloodstream. Epic closer “Words (Between the Lines of Age)” earns its ranking as the album’s heaviest cut, its raw energy emitted from within a sunlit sludge of naked agitation and bloody delirium. A sonic monument to unbridled guitar rock, with more backing vocals from Stills and Nash, as well as some phenomenal input from Nitzsche, “Words” was an obvious precursor to the imminent grunge sound, of which Young has served as something of a godfather.

Despite lukewarm critical reception, Harvest was the U.S.’s best-selling album of 1972. Retrospective evaluations have, of course, been far kinder, with many declaring it among rock’s great monuments. “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man” are timeless classics, instantly recognizable to many, while tracks such as “Out on the Weekend” and “Harvest” are testaments to Young’s finesse as one of his generation’s top songwriters. Upon Harvest’s completion, it has been recounted by Graham Nash, Young insisted upon playing the album for his former C.S.N.Y. bandmate, while spending the day at Young’s ranch. With music emitting from large speakers located within the house and barn, Young took Nash by rowboat out onto the property’s lake. At that point, Mazer emerged to ask Young’s opinion as to the stereo balance, with Young hollering in response, “more barn!”—an appropriately mythological order for an equally mythological release.

Even now, it seems we could still use more barn, our thirst for such artful replenishment yet to be satisfied. Young, who has enjoyed an illustrious, nearly 60-year career, has reached many high points since Harvest, serving as a prominent influence on a wide range of musical subgenres. This album, however, remains a unique entry in his expansive discography, its bare vulnerability devoid of the despondent murk of Young’s subsequent “ditch” trilogy, as well as the raggedly defiant avant-garde experimentalism of his more notorious “go fuck yourself” projects, such as Trans and Le Noise. Instead, Harvest offers a sincere portrait of a wildly sensitive artist, in love and anguish, at the height of his powers. With its folksy modesty and rock ‘n’ roll pretension, Harvest manages to walk the line between unvarnished poetic statement and delusion of rockstar grandeur, showcasing the best and worst of either world, all the while casting the same dusky spell it did five decades ago.

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