Wait, You’ve Never Heard: Neil Young’s Harvest

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When given the assignment of writing about an album I should have heard in my quarter-century of music listening, I realized there are far too many albums that fit that category. I enlisted the help of friends on Facebook and in real life to tell me their thoughts on essential albums a music appreciator should have heard start to finish.

My embarrassment grew more and more with each suggestion. How could there be so many?? And so many classics?! The Beatles, The Clash, Fugazi, The Rolling Stones. Yes, I had heard of these bands and have more than likely heard many songs from their albums, but never straight through and not the deep tracks on the albums. Plus, I wanted to write about a band that was not as easy or that I didn’t have as much knowledge of their catalogue as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. In the end, I had a list of nearly 50 albums to choose from, but there was one album that multiple people suggested. An album by an artist that I had always been meaning to listen to more, but his sheer volume of albums had me worried I would pick a dud and be turned off from going further. So I decided to take the suggestion and pick Neil Young and the album Harvest.

Having grown up with parents who were children of the ’70s, and a mother who was a big Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young fan, I have definitely heard Neil Young songs. His distinctive high nasal whine is as hard to forget as his guitar/harmonica/long-haired/wide-brimmed hat image. However, I had never heard a single one of his albums from start to finish. After doing some research, Harvest seemed like a good place to start. It was Young’s solo commercial breakthrough and it came highly recommended from people whose word I trusted. When it was released in February of 1972, Harvest shot straight to the top of the Billboard chart along with its lead single, “Heart of Gold”, which remains Young’s only number one song in his career. (And yes, I have heard that song.) He recorded the album with help from some Nashville country session musicians that he dubbed The Stray Gators, the London Symphony Orchestra, as well as Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, and previous band mates David Crosby, Steven Stills, and Graham Nash who all provided backing vocals with Taylor also providing some banjo work.

After giving the album a few solid, headphone-and-no-distraction listens, I was surprised that this album was his big commercial hit. The songs are well produced and clean, but the album itself is somewhat uneven in style. It goes from quiet country/folk songs to almost movie score theatrics then back to quiet then a random live track and then ending with a long electric guitar rocker.

Opener “Out on the Weekend” is what I expected the album’s sound to be: a slow, simple guitar and harmonica folk-tune with lyrics of longing and lost love. The rhythm section of Tim Drummond and Ken Buttrey, on bass and drums respectively, is tight and concise on this track and throughout the album. Young continues the simple country-style on the title track, and adds in John Harris on piano. Young sings to a girl for which he hopes to change her fortune by fulfilling her “promise of a man.”

The next track, “A Man Needs a Maid”, changes styles drastically with the addition of the London Symphony Orchestra. Young’s voice seems to fit well with the opening bars of piano, but then suddenly his voice and the song seem out of place against the soaring strings, ringing chimes and dramatic brass section. The lyrics, on the surface, seem like a misogynistic musing from a lazy man wanting some woman to come clean his place while he deals with life “changing in so many ways.” But once I listened a few more times and a little more closely, I realized Young is continuing his theme of lost love. Although he says he just wants someone to come by and clean and cook, it is more of a reluctance to commit to someone than just using someone. It’s as if he is singing to a prospective “maid”: “It’s hard to make that change/when life and love/turns strange/and old/to give a love you gotta live a love/to live a lot you gotta be ‘part of’/when will I see you again?”

Next comes the number one hit, “Heart of Gold”, where Young falls back into the guitar/harmonica-style with solid results. The signature guitar work along with great backing vocals from Ronstadt and Taylor, show why this was, and continues to be, a fantastic hit song. Young then returns to the piano for an upbeat honky-tonk jam in “Are You Ready for the Country?” featuring Crosby and Nash on backing vocals. He then launches into the other hit song from the album, “Old Man”. With the help of Ronstadt again on backing vocals and Taylor on backing vocals and banjo, Young crafts another solid 70’s folk song which captures the lost feeling of his generation during the Vietnam era.

The gears completely switch again as Young calls upon the orchestra for plucking and then soaring strings and slamming tympanis for “There’s a World”. Reviews at the time of the release hint that the song may be a peek at his soundtrack work for the film, Journey Through the Past, however the film is actually a retrospective on Young’s first five to six years as a recording artist including Buffalo Springfield songs and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young songs, so I’m not sure this even fits the film score. It along with the previous track “A Man Needs a Maid” would have been best as solo guitar or piano works such as the second-to-last track “The Needle and the Damage Done”. As they stand they break the flow of the album and sound completely out of place against the slide guitars and banjos in the rest of the album.

In between “There’s a World” and “The Needle and the Damage Done” is the strongest rocker on the album, “Alabama”. Many view it as a companion piece to “Southern Man” from his previous album, After the Gold Rush. It is an ode to Alabama and a feeling of relation between the state and Young: “I’m from a new land/I come to you and/see all this ruin/what are you doing/Alabama/you’ve got the rest of the Union to help you along/what’s going wrong?”

“The Needle and the Damage Done” is itself a bit of an oddity. A strong and sad solo guitar lament to all his friends who have passed away due to heroin addiction, it is the lone live track. It was recorded at a concert at UCLA, and the only way you know it is live is at the very end when there is a quick smattering of applause before it jumps straight into the final track of the album; the rocking and electric solos of “Words (Between the lines of age)”.

After being ignorant for 25 years, I’m glad to have finally given this album a solid listen. I am unsure as to why it was such a strong commercial success. Its flow is uneven and odd, and a mix of too many styles. All that said, it has great songs. When it is good, it is really good (“Heart of Gold”, “Old Man”, “The Needle and the Damage Done”), and when it is bad it is still not awful. As my friend Tom told me, “Harvest is the gateway drug of Neil Young albums,” and now I want to hear more. I definitely suggest checking this one out if you haven’t already.