Neil Young's 30+ career albums are as varied as any other artist, spanning psychedelic folk to folk-rock to hard rock to pre-grunge. Despite the unpredictable and often self-indulgent nature of his music, it is not surprising Young has achieved such lasting commercial success. His 1972 release, |Harvest
, was an immediate success, hitting the top of the album charts and sustaining its popularity to become that year's most purchased record. That popularity is justified even today by the considerable commercial weight the album has, remaining his most popular record to this date.
Like his breakthrough album, 1970s After The Goldrush
was intended by Young to be a country album. He recruited the Stray Gators for the task, a band which consisted of Jack Nitzsche (who also co-produced), Ben Keith, Tim Drummond and Kenny Buttrey. The majority of the album was recorded in Nashville, with Young in much pain, sporting an uncomfortable back brace. Fellow singer-songwriters James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt were also persuaded to contribute vocal tracks.
Despite the most rigid of intentions, Harvest
does not manifest itself simply as a "country album." Single 'Heart Of Gold' would go on to become Young's career best-selling single and echoes his past folk-rock recordings. Driven by Young's aggressive acoustic guitar playing and a beautiful harmonica melody, 'Heart Of Gold' expresses Young's simple longing for love: "I've been a miner for a heart of gold and and I'm getting old."
The only traces of Nashville's influence on the track are Linda Ronstadt's haunting backing vocals and the late introduction of a slide guitar. The lasting appeal of this classic recording is clear in Young's superb vocal, easy to like and impossible not to sing along to.
Similarly, my favourite song on the album, 'The Needle & The Damage Done', harks back to Young's CSNY days. The song is a short slice of folk magic, containing a beautifully melodic picked acoustic guitar intro and an emotion-filled vocal. The song was recorded live in California, though it's impossible to tell until it's over, and tells the story of Neil's experiences with heroin and the lives it has taken.
I caught you knocking at my cellar door/I love you baby, can I have some more"/Oh, the damage done.
I hit the city and I lost my band/I watched the needle take another man/Gone, gone, the damage done.
Opening track 'Out On The Weekend' is a fusion of country and folk, with a slow, drum heavy rhythm and mournful melodies from both harmonica and slide guitar. The acoustic guitar is typically aggressive, despite the slow tempo, echoing the lyrical sentiment of frustration in love.
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.
Two of the album's ten tracks feature the London Symphony Orchestra. The first is feminists' favourite 'A Man Needs A Maid'. The song caused a huge stir at the time of release to its content which was perceived to be sexist. Young laments his bad luck in love and ponders the thought that men should simply get maids rather than wives, who'll perform the wife's duties while protecting him from the heartbreak he feels is inevitable in relationships. The dynamic is powerful on the chorus, as Nitzsche's sombre piano gives way to dramatic orchestral sweeps.
'There's A Love' makes similarly epic use of the famed orchestra, opening with dramatic string crescendos, before a quieter passage emerges driven by woodwind instruments. The dynamic is once again superb, as is Young's heartfelt vocal.
There's a world you're living in/No one else has your part/All God's children in the wind/Take it in and blow hard
To give a love, you gotta live a love/To live a love, you gotta be part of"
'Old Man' is perhaps the album's second most well-known song, also featuring the vocal skills of Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. A banjo melody in the intro gives way to a similar passage on acoustic guitar, while Young again ponders the feeling of aging without loving.
Old man take a look at my life/I'm a lot like you/I need someone to love me the whole night through.
'Alabama' and 'Words (Between The Lines Of Age)' could easily be mistaken for Crazy Horse songs, as distorted guitar lines and heavy chord stabs litter both tunes. The former is a facetious ode to Alabama, blasting it as an economic drain on "the union" - "Alabama you got the world on your shoulders/That's breaking your back."
The latter is a disposable rocker, which I don't see fit to comment on.
The title track is a fast-paced but understated country song, written in the style of an interview as Young pesters a poor girl with a barrage of personal questions. The chorus is pretty, lyrically, with Young promising, "Dream up, dream up, let me fill your cup with the promise of a man."
'Are You Ready For The Country"' is another album highlight which echoes the Eagles, though driven by the bluesy piano of Nitzsche. Though repetitive, it's an enjoyable song to listen to and a welcome break from the album's typically morose lyrics. The song features an infectious chorus, which is repeated ad nauseum.
Are you ready for the Country"/Because it's time to go
is regarded by Young himself as his finest release; he would comment many years later: "I think Harvest
is probably the finest record I've ever made." He makes a strong case.