Happy 45th Anniversary to Neil Young’s Harvest, originally released February 1, 1972.
For the past few decades, Canadian-born singer-songwriter Neil Young, now 71, has seemed to make a career out of remaining (pardon the pun) young. It’s a purpose demonstrated in his collaborations with bands two or three generations his junior, from Pearl Jam in ’92 to Promise of the Real in ’16. It’s seen in his activism related to energy and environmental causes. It even somehow ties into whatever he’s doing with those overpriced Pono headphones, consoles and streaming services geared towards audiophile nerds. This is what makes it somewhat ironic that by the time he was 25, recording Harvest, the biggest selling album in the United States in 1972, Neil Young was already making a killing by sounding old and world-weary.
Released 45 years ago, there’s nothing on Harvest that sounded new, even by 1972’s standards. This was true in reference to the musical landscape in which it arrived, as well as how it related to Young’s catalog up to that point. The “country rock” synthesis heard here was present in the late sixties work of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, The Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons and The Rolling Stones, to name just a few. The album’s two deviations into orchestral arrangements, recorded by classical arranger Jack Nitzsche with the London Symphony Orchestra on “A Man Needs a Maid” and “There’s a World,” was a blueprint already laid out plainly in the work of The Moody Blues, E.L.O. and of course, The Beatles.
Meanwhile there is enough of a self-referential thread to previous Neil Young work, running throughout the ten songs & thirty-seven minutes, that led fellow musician/Rolling Stone music critic John Mendelsohn to say it had “the discomfortingly unmistakable resemblance of nearly every song on this album to an earlier Young composition—it's as if he just added a steel guitar and new words to After The Gold Rush” in his less-than-glowing 1972 review.
But while all of that may be true, there is still only one Neil Young. And perhaps part of the reason why this album still sounds evergreen in 2017 is rooted in its eschewing of stylistic, lyrical or sonic innovation. Critical commentary is never something Young has ever seemed to court, even if it found its way to him from time to time, particularly on overpraised later-career albums like 1989’s Freedom and 1990’s Ragged Glory. Commercial appeal was something that he has flirted with on occasion, to wild success. Still, this is a man who has also gone so stubbornly hard in the other direction, that he was famously sued by his own then-record-company, Geffen Records, in the early ‘80s for violating his contract by putting out experimental synth-driven albums like Trans (1982) that were “unrepresentative” of the Neil Young that critics and fans had come to expect. Safe to say that David Geffen would have been much happier, and found it far easier to sell, the Neil Young heard on Harvest.
While he may have been accused in ’72 of putting out “After the Gold Rush with new words and a pedal-steel” in Rolling Stone, the updated template he crafted here he’d go on to faithfully retrace later, on 1992’s Harvest Moon and 2005’s Prairie Wind, as well as the 2006 Jonathan Demme-directed documentary/concert-film Heart of Gold, borrowing its title from the only Billboard #1 single of Young’s career, first featured here. This aesthetic would basically become one of the two best-known lanes, to sound like a “Neil Young album.” There’s the more acoustic, country-rock lilt of Harvest, and then there’s the distortion-fueled, electric-guitar frenzy of dust kicked up when accompanied by his long-time band, Crazy Horse.
Most of Harvest’s material was written by age “24 and there’s so much more”, as he memorably describes himself on the album’s other hit single, “Old Man,” which peaked at #31 on Billboard. These were songs that some of Young’s fans had already been hearing in concerts for a full year prior. This is evident in the fact that five of the album’s ten cuts are included in the track listing of the 2007 live reissue, Live at Massey Hall, recorded at a Toronto show on January 19, 1971. Harvest was mostly recorded in Nashville in the fall of that year, with a crackerjack team of Music City session musicians. It may not be a coincidence that the album’s two biggest singles featured the assistance of two musical stars-in-their-own-right, James Taylor (banjo, backing vocals) and Linda Ronstadt (backing vocals). Can you imagine “Old Man” without Taylor’s banjo-plucking? Or the chorus of “Heart of Gold” without Ronstadt’s songbird stamp?
“Are You Ready for the Country?,” Neil asks us on the country-blues boogie of the same name. This question is clearly rhetorical, as he, the band, and a few of his more famous friends, had already decided it’s time to go. And while there is no outright weak link across this entire casually efficient song chain, the highlights remain the ones that most mine that country sound: the aforementioned big singles, the title track, and the sweetly rendered heartache of the opening track, “Out on the Weekend.”
You pretty much have to hate either Neil Young, country-rock, popular music, life, or some combination of all of the above, to dislike any one of those four songs. It’s the rest of the record where you might find some room for disagreement among critics, Young’s fans, fellow artists and even Young himself. You can go either way on “A Man Needs a Maid.” Do those strings sound like overwrought pomposity to you, or do they make for a four-minute sweepingly grand moment? Do the lyrics come off as casually chauvinistic or problematically sexist, or do you feel they metaphorically convey Young’s own loneliness and need for a companion to save him from his worst self?
Does the closing guitar work-out on “Words (Between the Lines of Age)” give the album another needed texture and color, or does it sound like a rhythm recycling job of its superior spiritual godfather, “Down by the River?” Does “The Needle and the Damage Done,” a solo acoustic number recorded live during a show at UCLA during the summer of 1971, feel devastatingly dark to the point of depressing? Or does the fact that the subject matter remains so relevant, while the lyrics would prove so prophetic, even within his own band, with the deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and beloved CSN&Y roadie Bruce Berry, prove that it elevates beyond its sparse, haunted melody? The fact that it’s been the de-facto theme song about addiction for artists to cover in shows ever since means a majority of Young’s fellow musicians would vote for the latter.
Speaking of musical peer feedback, we already know how Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant felt about the “Southern Man” remix, a.k.a. “Alabama.” It’s probably a strong factor in what led him to call Young out by name in verse on “Sweet Home Alabama” a year later. In a somewhat surprising turn, when it comes to pre-rap “classic rock” beef, like Lennon vs. McCartney, in Young’s case he actually publicly sided with Van Zant’s objections later. In his 2012 autobiography Waging Heavy Peace, Young references “Alabama” and confesses that he "richly deserved the shot Lynyrd Skynyrd gave me with their great record. I don't like my words when I listen to it. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue."
What cannot be misconstrued, despite what camp you might occupy in any of these debates, is that Neil Young’s Harvest is a canonical piece of work. It’s quite literally got the receipts, the accolades and the replay value right up to and through today to prove it. While showing our appreciation for a piece of art featuring a young man sounding old, here’s to hoping that Old Neil manages to continue to do his best to stay young. Based on his recent release of the live album Earth this past June, as well as the Rick Rubin-produced Peace Train back in December, it seems like a safe bet that we haven’t heard the last of Neil Young yet. Happy 45th Birthday to one of his best.