Neil Young
   
Harvest
   
   

Release Date: July 14, 2009 (August, 1971)
Produced by: Jack Nitzsche, Neil Young w/Eliot Mazer, Henry Levy
Format: CD

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08/10/2009
Mark Squirek


 

As the Seventies began to advance, the world-wide success of CSN&Y, coupled with his own work on his solo release, saw Neil Young move close to the top of the rock stratosphere. The release of Harvest would put him into that rarified orbit and cause him to subsequently re-evaluate everything he was.

Unlike the last two Neil young albums, each of which opened with a definitive guitar line that declared the album’s arrival, this one begins with a laid-back bass riff and drum beat. The beat hangs so far back that it appears to be drifting back in time instead of moving the album forward! This feeling of being out of time and place seems to permeate the entire release. This "laid back" feeling is definitely a different Neil from the previous two albums. It takes a lot of confidence to open an album this way and by now confidence, will and determination were qualities that Neil had in abundance.

For his fourth release Neil once again mixes up the musicians he is working with. There are a few constants, including Jack Nitzsche, Crosby, Still and Nash in various back-up roles. The overall feeling of being out of time is held together by The Stray Gators.

Ben Keith’s work on pedal steel guitar and dobro is a spectral presence throughout. The near perfect support that bass player Tim Drummond has for every song on the album is best heard on a song that tends to get lost among the other more familiar work found on HarvestWords (Between the Lines of Ages). He completely supports where Young is going throughout the jam in the middle and at the end. When the song erupts into its chorus he hangs right there with everyone else and doesn’t waste a single note anywhere. Kenny Buttrrey on drums is so on the money (again, listen to his work on Word’s…) that the others are able to move freely around him. Both should also be noted for helping to keep Alabama from slipping into a knock-off of Southern Man.

Crazy Horse gets all the attention as Neil’s greatest back up band. The Gators come at what they do from another direction. They are every bit an equal of the Horse when it comes to what they do for Neil.
As much as the group adds to this release, the album is still Neil establishing who he is outside of all other working relationships. It is also the height of his early Seventies songwriting. In the past he has been a bit elliptical and vague, his lyrics would sometimes seem to be something to just hang the song on (the two best example are Cowgirl in the Sand and Down by the River from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere).

This time out he has a definite, consistent persona throughout the album.  He is a “lonely boy out for the weekend” (Out On The Weekend), he directly addresses the person he is talking to in of Harvest (Did I see you there in the town with you mother in so much pain”) and has a hopeful wish for her (”Dream up, dream up let me fill your cup with the promise of a man.)

The best examples of his directness and how effective it is as a songwriting tool for Young are two of the most famous songs to come off this release, Old Man and The Needle and the Damage Done. In Old Man young directly reaches across the generation gap (a new term widely used by the Media at the time and thus on the minds of many at the time)and says “Old Man take a look at my life I am a lot like you were. I am not saying that was Young’s impetus behind what he was writing, but it was how a lot of people choose to hear what he was saying.

The Needle and the Damage Done brings the idea of drug addiction right into the listener’s heart. The narration jumps around a bit but you never loose the sense of sadness at the core of what Young is telling us ( another example of Neil’s directness on this release). It is one of his finest vocal performances ever. His sense of resignation on the last line is palpable and as he seems to be resigned to the fate his friend has chosen. “But ever junkie’s like the setting Sun” sums up the hold that heroin on those who choose that route through life more than anything else possibly could.

Are You Ready for the Country points towards the “organized disarray” of Tonight’s the Night. It opens with a shambolic piano riff that some how manages to come together enough to hold everyone else from spinning off. The slide guitar jumps up and down and barely manages to hold onto the rest of what is going on. It reminds me of the way Lennon and Harrison used slide on their solo release during the same period. Nash and Crosby stand off to the side providing solid back up for their friend. (On the few times he has worked in support as a solo Nash has always shined. More Barn!).

In addition to The Stray gators Neil was also working with a symphony orchestra. The expansive beauty of A Man Needs a Maid is held in place by the sweetness of the piano.  The quiet refrain of “To give a love, you got to live a love, when will I see you again” reminds us that the loneliness in the heart of the song. After he tells us of watching a movie with a friend and falling love the actress, something we have all done, the sweep of the strings as they rush in draws us into the cinema with Young as well as into his fantasy of fulfillment with the dream on screen. (Yes there is a biographical aspect for Yung inside what he is singing, but that stands outside the song for 99.9 percent of those who hear it). 

The orchestral work on the other song, There’s A World, is just about the only misstep on the album. Unlike A Man Needs A Maid where the string support embellish everything Neil is working towards in the song, this time out they just bury him. The strings and the massive arrangement distract instead of support what Young is reaching for. Justin Hayward and the Moody Blues may have gotten away with this much behind them, but for Neil, the massive weight behind the orchestral backing on this song almost causes him to disappear from the song.  

And than there is the hit single, Heart of Gold.

It is the perfect radio song and any other artists could have had an entire career based around this. But what did Neil do with the cachet he earned in both the record company’s and the public’s eye? He went on to make Time Fades Away. A live album so completely removed from the beauty and comfort held inside Harvest that almost everyone stood there scratching their heads saying “WTF?”

Still, nothing can ever take away from the beauty of the backing vocals of Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. Nothing can remove the effortless melody that flies out of a convertible top on a summer’s day when this song comes on the radio with no warning. Nothing can erase the declaration of intent that the acoustic guitar has when it opens the song. (Remember the way he opened the last two albums; Neil knows how to announce a song.). Nothing can remove the wonderful sense of searching for something you hope to find that is inside this song. Nothing can ever take away the feeling you get when you hear it.

We all want a Heart of Gold. It is a universal truth wrapped in Southern California sunshine with the harmonies of the Mamas and the Papas, and The Beach Boys colliding on the beach as we all race for the surf or drive into a hamburger stand before the sun sets on our way to the drive in. It is also the sun setting on a hard day of work on a Kentucky horse farm or a crab fisherman raking in the last haul of the day on the Chesapeake. Heart of Gold is the complete American Wish. It is everything we really hope for.

It is also written by the same guy who five songs later would sing one of the saddest songs ever written about heroin addiction.

With almost forty years behind us it is easy to forget how beautiful this album is. Anytime an album gets this successful time somehow places it at the back of the bin keeping other over-played albums company. The new remastering sent me back with this classic and if you have been ignoring this because you once played it into the ground, find time to revisit Harvest.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 



 
     
     
     

 

 

   
 
     

 

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