Monday, April 26, 2010


Here it is, the best-selling album of 1972. With its slickly produced, slightly country-infused sound, complete with an omnipresent pedal steel and backing vocals from Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, Harvest represents Neil Young at his most commercially palatable. So I could see why a Neil Young enthusiast might not rank this one up with Neil's best work, arguing that it shows less of his idiosyncrasies or his eclectic range of influences. But, come on, this hypothetical fan I just invented is a joyless asshole. Harvest is pop music at its finest.

From the opening guitar and harmonica notes of "Out on the Weekend," the album establishes a rousing folk-rock sound that is often catchy and upbeat, but with a twinge of wistfulness. The album will always be best remembered for its big hits "Heart of Gold" (a song admittedly overplayed to the point that it has become somewhat more difficult to appreciate) and "Old Man," and a good portion of the album sounds like those songs: fun and lively, but thoughtful. Take for example "Alabama," a song that mines similar material to "Southern Man," but with less self-seriousness and something more of a wink and nod.

Now, just because this was the most audience-friendly album Neil had released up until this point, doesn't mean that there isn't plenty of his offbeat individuality present. "A Man Needs a Maid" is almost embarrassingly confessional (and possibly misogynistic), as Neil fantasizes about finding "someone to keep my house clean/fix my meals, and go away." (Those lyrics almost sound like a joke, but the song is dead serious, complete with apocalyptic orchestra cues). "The Needle and the Damage Done" is a beautiful and affecting song about friends lost to drug addiction. And for sheer oddness, you can't beat "There's a World," a piano and orchestra number with lyrics that sound vaguely spiritual, but the final effect is more spooky than anything else.

So the massive success of this album would, in part, abruptly turn Neil towards his dark, "Ditch Trilogy" period: a deliberate effort to reject his mainstream popularity that would produce my all-time favorite Neil Young album. Yet that doesn't mean that I don't also cherish the clean, crisp, fun country/folk/rock/pop of Harvest. And even if this album opened a few doors for Neil that he may have preferred stay closed, there's a joy inherent in this album that's lacking in his next few releases. And I know that joy never died, because Neil would return to this sound/style at least twice, for two of best later-period albums. But we'll get to those later.

Rating : A


Shenan said...

I have to disagree with the overall characterization that the album as a whole is joyful and folk-poppy. I think it swings between two extremes: the Heart of Gold/Out on the Weekend/Old Man pleasant-but-thoughtful folk-poppiness, and the dark and haunting A Man Needs a Maid/Needle and the Damage Done/etc crowd of songs.

The title track kind of straddles those two extremes; it has the pleasant, understated, swinging mellowness of a porch swing, with strangely juxtaposed lyrics that imply something dark (mother in so much pain? screaming in the rain? some black face in a lonely place?) I have my own story I've constructed in my head of what it's about, but I wouldn't say with any confidence that it's correct. The song is really a slightly dark enigma.

Dan said...

I guess I would attribute more of those details to Neil's weirdness (something I haven't discussed enough in my posts... but just wait until we get to the 80's) rather than darkness. Compared to TONIGHT'S THE NIGHT, the songs you mentioned are downright cheery, and seem more like impassioned ballads that fit in with the albums more upbeat aesthetic.