In his five-decade career, Neil Young has never stuck with a particular genre.
His first project, Buffalo Springfield, was a rock group with Stephen Stills, who would later put Young as the fourth wheel in folk super group Crosby Stills & Nash. He experimented during most of the 1980s, trying out rockabilly and vocoders, collaborating with contemporary acts, and reuniting with CSN and his late 1960s group, Crazy Horse.
Young’s career has been a tapestry of experimentation, and Harvest is no exception. Forty years after its release on Feb. 14, 1972, the Canuck’s fourth solo release remains an American masterpiece and a handbook for running out to pasture while staying in shouting distance of civilization.
The fourth solo release for Young, Harvest was considered “the country album,” although, like the artist who wrote it, the album can hardly be pigeonholed as such.
There are elements of country, yes, but also of rock and folk. Throughout the album, the singer-songwriter croons about suffering, youth and life with his one-of-a-kind vocals that already creaked like a cabin door at age 27. The mood of the album is somber, but there are plenty of plain-speaking lyrics and down-to-earth attitudes that lend Harvest its folk credibility. The man who would later pen “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” made the album bottom-heavy with its weightiest tracks loaded at the end.
The best example of the album’s sound comes suitably within the first two minutes of “Out on the Weekend.” Harvest creeps in with a steady bass-snare-tambourine combo; Young’s slow, wheat-soaked acoustic guitar part followed shortly by a bluesy harmonica; and finally, Young’s voice: “Think I’ll pack it in and buy a pickup/Take it down to LA.” This is a story of a guy out of his element (What rock star drives a truck in Los Angeles?) who finds it difficult to fit in; hence the chorus, “See the lonely boy out on the weekend/Trying to make it pay.” While the first verse builds toward the chorus, Young brings in Ben Keith on pedal steel and reveals a rock element when he introduces producer Jack Nitzsche on piano at the chorus, with all instruments dramatically pounding the ear with a “dunh, dunh, dunh, dunh, duh.”
And the tone is set for the year’s bestselling album.
Country and, to a lesser extent, rock govern the sound of Harvest, but there are folk themes present throughout the album—naïveté, encouragement, struggle, intrapersonal conflict and love, to name a few, and they are matched perfectly with Young’s youthful but uneven voice and barebones instrumentals.
“Old Man,” written for the caretaker and previous owner of Young’s northern California ranch, is sung by a 20-something Young, who knows he hasn’t experienced as much as his subject but can identify similarities between the two. “Heart of Gold”—which remains Young’s highest charting single—shares his struggle to find “the one.” Declaring himself a miner for a heart of gold, Young has looked everywhere for that person and summarizes his results of the search: “and I’m growing old,” while Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor sing along as his brokenhearted support system.
“The Needle and the Damage Done,” written about Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten’s heroin overdose and how it’s affected him and his music, is sung quieter and is the only track with just Young and his guitar. “I sing the song because I love the man/I know some of you don’t understand,” addresses the conflicts Young encountered in staying friends and bandmates with Whitten. He offers “There’s a World,” an invitation for listeners to leave their comfort zones. Piano is matched perfectly with strings, a tinkling harp and rumbling drums of the London Symphony Orchestra—an instrumental change of pace that doesn’t interrupt the album’s momentum and doesn’t improperly introduce “Alabama.” “Alabama” doubles as a love letter for the Southern state’s struggles and as an apology for 1970’s “Southern Man,” wherein Young, a Canadian, discourages the American South for its alleged racism toward African-Americans. Young gives Alabama his support in saying, “Oh Alabama, can I see you and shake your hand?/Make friends down in Alabama.”
Suitable to the gritty, unbridled attitude of “Alabama,” the track was recorded in a barn on Young’s ranch. For this he used Stills’ hollow-bodied Gretsch White Falcon. Although the guitar appeared kitschy, it delivered a sound that guided the song’s loud chorus. Supported by crashing cymbals and backing vocals, “Alabama” starts with a welcoming but speculative guitar plucking but builds to be the first rock-out song in the repertoire. The chorus is loud, and the cymbals and backing vocals of The Stray Gators—Young’s band comprising Keith, Nitzsche, Tim Drummond on bass and Kenny Buttrey on drums—are akin to townspeople singing with torches and pitchforks.
This is what country music needed in the ’70s. The genre wasn’t in a bad way, but it was then that country pop as we know it today was in its early stages, and—despite its main players comprising Willie Nelson, John Denver, Charlie Rich, Glen Campbell and Dolly Parton—the genre needed the kick in the boots that Harvest delivered.
There are the ubiquitous pedal steel guitar and piano present throughout the album. The latter adds classical elements (“A Man Needs a Maid,” “There’s a World”) to some and a light-hearted appeal to others (“Are You Ready for the Country,” “Harvest”), while the former keeps the mood of Harvest grounded.
“Are You Ready for the Country?,” tucked between the album’s two chart-toppers, challenged Young’s heavier fans, yet the guitar was laid down a la Lynyrd Skynrd, and makes for the album’s fun, upbeat song that puts listeners on the highway toward the South.
Harvest closes with rock opus “Words (Between the Lines of Age),” whose timid prelude “The Needle and the Damage Done” crashes into with its applause from the crowd at UCLA that sounds more like white noise. Also recorded in Young’s barn, the only element of country in this track is the placid piano, which anchors the rest of the elements—Young’s voice included—from going insane, and is a perfect way to finish an otherwise quiet album. The song packs as much dirty sturm-und-drang as “Alabama,” but the aggression never comes to a head. The mood of struggle and conflict continues as the narrator talks about bemused perceptions that reflect his life, and all he can say of himself is, “I was a junkman selling you cars/Washing your windows and shining your stars.”
And the junkman has been at it since, selling us album after album since the ’60s, either by himself or in one of his many projects. In 1992, he rejoined a few of The Stray Gators and reenlisted Ronstadt and Taylor on vocals for Harvest Moon, a follow-up to that album that had stuck in listener’s minds and fan’s record players for 20 years. It was heralded as one of Young’s best since, well, Harvest, but still couldn’t match its brilliance and beauty.
Neil Young – Harvest tracklist:
- “Out on the Weekend”
- “A Man Needs a Maid”
- “Heart of Gold”
- “Are You Ready for the Country?”
- “Old Man”
- “There’s a World”
- “The Needle and the Damage Done”
- “Words (Between the Lines of Age)”