Thursday, June 3, 2010

Harvest Moon

The title "Harvest Moon" should tip you off that it's a return, maybe even self-consciously so, to the straight-up folk sound that Neil had been famous for, but hadn't realized utilized since the late 70's. Obviously the title recalls Harvest, with which the album shares a few similarities (pedal steel and female backup singers abound), but I'd say its even closer in sound to Comes a Time: mellow folk-rock (light on the rock), carefully crafted songs with strong melodies, wistful atmosphere.

I'm noticing that, not always, but often I've been grading the more mainstream Neil Young albums higher than some of his more experimental work. I feel a little like one of those people who only gives a shit about Martin Scorsese when he directs a mafia movie, like I just want Neil to stick to making pleasant folk tunes and stop with all the quirkiness. But what can I say? Deliberately commercial or not, Harvest Moon is a classic.

Opening cut "Unknown Legend" is a dreamy tribute to a once-independent woman now settling into middle-age, and establishes the growing-old motif that seems to be the album's main theme."From Hank to Hendrix" one of the most affecting break-up songs Neil has ever written, continues this, chronicling a long-term relationship by cultural touchstones ("From Marilyn to Madonna/I've always loved your smile"), and "One of These Days" is a thank-you letter "to all the good friends I've known." Even the album's goofiest track, "Old King," a tribute to "the best ol' hound dog I ever did know", is about a dog that died, therefore lending the song a slight sense of nostalgia.

The production on this album, arguably a little too-polished, is still rich and layered. The title track in particular, which features a sweeping broom as part of the percussion, is a lush blend of smooth sounds that effectively adds to the lyrical love story it tells.

The weaknesses of Harvest Moon that keep it from being on Comes a Time's level have to do with a small amount of bloat and mawkishness. Some of the songs could be tightened, but that's only a minor complaint. "Such a Woman" and "Natural Beauty" are both pretty, but they amp up the emotion a little too high in the choruses and lose some of their effectiveness. The worst song is "War of Man," unnecessarily long at 5 1/2 minutes, with on-the-nose lyrics ("No one wins/Its a war of man") and a painful earnestness that rises to the level of corniness.

Still, this album is more great than not, and highly recommendable to anyone who treasures the warm, folk balladeer Neil Young.

Rating: A -


Shenan said...

I always thought that, while it does contain a bunch of cultural touchstones, "From Hank to Hendrix" wasn't a breakup song via cultural touchstones, but rather a breakup song via a song about losing/selling/being-unable-to-play-because-it's-so-old-and-broken an old guitar, which serves as a metaphor for ending a relationship with another human being.

but i agree about it being great and affecting.

Dan said...

Hmm, not sure I see the guitar metaphor. He makes pretty explicite references about the other person's smile, not a trait that a guitar has, and a "big divorce." I think the guitar lines are literally about him writing a break-up song.

Perhaps you are thinking of "This Old Guitar" on Prairie Wind?

Shenan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shenan said...

"From Hank to Hendrix
I walked these streets with you
Here I am with this old guitar
Doin' what I do.

I always expected
That you should see me through
I never believed in much
But I believed in you."

That could very clearly be about either a woman or a guitar (except that he addresses "old guitar" in third person...minor point though)

And then also the refrain of:

"Can we get it together
Can we still stand side by side
Can we make it last
Like a musical ride?"

Can he still go on playing that old, worn guitar? Can his old vision of what he wanted out of playing music, and what he thought the music he wrote should mean/do, still be realized, or has that vision changed in favor of new guitars, for better or worse? Is all of that a metaphor for a relationship with a woman?

Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but that's how I always thought of it.

(sorry, I deleted the other comment I wrote because I left a sentence unfinished in the would have been confusing and weird)