Monday, 25 January 2016
Neil Young "Harvest Moon" (1992)
Neil Young "Harvest Moon" (1992)
Unknown Legend/From Hank To Hendrix/You and Me/Harvest Moon/War Of Man//One Of These Days/Such A Woman/Old King/Dreamin' Man/Natural Beauty
"Ears ringing from the battle fire, the tired warrior aims a little higher"
'Harvest' in 1972 had been the sound of a man at the Spring of his career, reaping the reward of being in the right place at the right time as all the pieces of his past - the Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse, CSNY and orchestral solo sounds of the debut album - came together. A 'Harvest Moon' is a particular term for the full moon that shines nearest to the September equinox, the 'Autumn' years. The twenty years in between had seen Neil Young's career wax and wane to an even crazier beat than the lunar surface and had led the singer-songwriter-guitarist down some very odd paths, when his muse was at best 'crescent full'. Now, though, Neil feels his muse pulling him like a magnet through the sky every bit as strongly as ever it did in 1972, before Danny Whitten, Geffen and 'rust' torpedoed his career in commercial terms. He clearly feels as if he's onto something, that the wind is blowing in the right direction after some well received returns to form with Crazy Horse and once again he's ready to reap the fact that his style and persona plus his standing with the fans and critics happen to be in fashion this year. However 'Harvest Moon' is not a direct sequel to 'Harvest' - it's a middle aged man's record, full of ifs and whats and maybes, worried about where the future might lead and guilty about neglecting people from his past, but simply pleased that he even has a future and hopeful that it might yet be as rosy as his past. The big change comes on 'You and Me' where Neil describes an 'Old Man' again, but instead of telling him 'I'm a lot like you were' Neil pulls back to reveal it's himself, 'a touch of grey but he don't care', his experiences having changed him since he was '24 with so much more'. It's a changing of the guard this album, a baton being passed on to another generation in contrast to the overgrown youth of 'Ragged Glory'. As many fans have pointed out, though, 'Harvest Moon' is actually a truer sequel thematically to 'Comes A Time', Neil's last 'family' record with a folky beat, and sees him turn ever more inward for seven songs about human relationships, two about ecology and one about his dog.
From the cover and title you'd be forgiven for assuming that this was one of Neil's 'dark' records, a silhouette replacing the usual Neil technique of fuzzy photos, blocks of colour and full-frontal shots of Neil in various poses. You can learn a lot from Neil Young album covers, even the ones that are ugly, but this one is quite beautiful: a stark silhouette of Neil, apparently on his ranch and his first since 'Tonight's The Night' to come in black and white, while also reflecting the sepia tinges of 'Comes A Time'. It's a pretty fitting cover for an album that's big on imagery and symbolism, trying to find connections through incidents and memories that don't appear to hold any particular meaning, though it also reflects the autobiography of both records. Neil sings of falling in love with Pegi, his guilt at not keeping in touch with old friends and even mourns for his favourite dog with a directness that would have caught the fan arriving here from the 'Geffen' years by surprise: these real-sounding sentiments aren't hidden behind vocodered robots, greasy haired rocker personas or lo-fi songs about being a fish. Could it be that at last Neil feels comfortable in his skin? That - in stark contrast to keeping us fans 'out' of his family life when son Ben was suffering in the 'Trans' period - he now wants to let us 'in', to see what it really is like to live with Neil Young in 1992? Sometimes Neil even goes too far, coming closest to overly gushing romance as in the nostalgia fest of 'One Of These Days' or the sugary strings of 'Such A Woman', perhaps the only one of the ten songs that rings a little hollow, but that's the sort of thing you can only risk when you're comfortable with yourself and your art - a record even more brave and far more revealing than the genre-hopping of the 1980s.
If 'Harvest' is an album about longing for something - of running away, packing it in 'and buying a pick up' while longing for a 'maid' and imagining a future like the old man on Neil's ranch- then 'Harvest Moon' is an album about having found something but being worried about letting it go. At times love wins out: 'Such A Woman' points to the inner romantic Neil usually keeps hidden (even if the ending is slightly more ambiguous, the pair using their closeness for ill as much as good) and the 'Harvest Moon' title track is one of the purest, revelling-in-the-moment songs of Neil's back catalogue. But then there are other songs where it feels like it's slipping away: the mother rushing around looking after two kids can't help but feel pangs of regret for how her life worked out on 'Unknown Legend', the next track 'From Hank To Hendrix' asks poignantly whether that shared history is enough to 'still walk side by side' to the end of the road and 'You and Me' is particularly fascinating in this light, a song begun in 1974 about different relationship altogether (the end of Neil's days with Carrie Snodgrass) and finished in 1992 from a whole new perspective: suddenly we've jumped in the blink of an eye from 'letting the lovin' start' to being decades ahead, the times where 'some were good and some were bad'. 'Old King' acknowledges the very natural theme of passing with obvious regret but also a sense that this is how it should be - that we appreciate things more when they're transient and passing. It's possibly the least schmaltzy my-dog-is-dead country song ever written, with the jovial chorus 'that old Hound-dog is history!', but rings true nonetheless. Time is precious is the album's theme, which happens to be the theme of 'Harvest' too but the difference is age and perspective, with Neil having by now worked out a little bit more what things are worth preserving and which are best left alone - mournful of the good friendships he let fade away and friendships that didn't work out rather than longing for them to start.
This is, too, a very backward looking record, full of references to past loves, memories and even pets. That's unusual for Neil - his only former track to ever look backwards with regrets was 'Long May You Run' and that was about a flipping car - and something he's never yet repeated. Till this point Neil's music has always been moving on to the next big thing, of chasing the next great idea and escaping your past as it only slows you down (and as 1979 told us, you can 'rust' if you end up in the same place for too long). This is the one exception, the record where Neil admits that her has a past and hasn't always made the most of it before dropping one idea for the next. A quick look through any Neil biography full of interviews with bands who've been cast aside when a new muse appears or who were exiled from the Neil ranch for reasons they never quite understood will have been shocked to hear 'One Of These Days' in which Neil promises to 'sit down and write a long letter to all the good friends I've known'. Most Neil love songs, too, are about the future and what might be - not what was, such as the first meeting with wife Pegi which took place in a 'diner' on 'Unknown Legend'. Similarly, while Neil can and has spent whole albums wondering about whether a relationship is 'right', he's never implored his partner to stay together for the sake of the past and their shared lives together as he does on 'From Hank To Hendrix', where Neil typically measures his life by the bands he was into at the time. 'Old King', about Neil's pet canine Elvis, is also unusually nostalgic, remembering his days as a puppy as much as his life in old age (his name 'changed' so people wouldn't think he was being rude about the singer, which again is unusual for Neil - usually he wouldn't care and anyway could have been singing about Elvis Costello - or footballer Elvis Abbruscato for that matter, though Neil singing about sports would have been truly unique!) Neil feels like he's aging across this record, finally doing the sort of things other writers do at his age (though typically he doesn't stay there - he'll bounce back with a record full of mystery even his younger self would have admired). He's even back to working with old friends again, including many who made the original 'Harvest' album with him as the 'Stray Gators' (a nickname they picked up on tour, so it isn't on the original 'Harvest' album): Ken Buttrey, Spooner Oldham and regular Ben Keith. Nicolette Larson also reprises her role as Neil's foil and muse, dancing across the songs the same way she did on 'Comes A Time'. There's even, would you believe, the first return appearance of Jack Nitzsche for the first time since Neil's first record and his work with the Buffalo Springfield, making for a lovely contrast with the 'then' and 'now'.
What won't come as a shock to longterm followers is that Neil released his purest, simplest album in years straight after giving us his most intense rocking period with 'Ragged Glory' and 'Weld'. To some extent the pretty acoustic feel of 'Harvest Moon' was rather thrust upon Neil, who'd been playing with such intensity for so many years that his hearing was shot and he was suffering from tinnitus which left a ringing in the ears that for a time seemed to put his whole 'rockstar' half on hold. Oddly enough, though, just as 'Ragged Glory' was a quiet and somewhat humble album that just happened to have been recorded really really loud, so 'Harvest Moon' is often a loud and expressive record for all it's purely unplugged backing. In a way it's delivered as if we've got tinnitus too: there are real surges and peaks throughout the record that get surprisingly loud for a record where none of the instruments go above a whisper, with perhaps the best sense of dynamics of any Young record. It's as if we're hearing every single slight movement in sound and it's being magnified into something much bigger than it would normally be. This is a record that never ever goes above a whisper - and yet it's a record that has no need to shout, making it's point through calm power and dynamics which actually get your attention more than an hour of 'Glory's guitar riffs.
That's particularly true of the two great ecological songs that end the original sides (not that many people did buy this one on vinyl in 1992 but Neil clearly thought that way for many more years yet given the natural 'peak' feel somewhere in the middle of most of his later records; I first owned this album on cassette anyway which is why I noticed - and skipping through the eight minutes or so of silence at the end of side two to balance out 'Natural Beauty' was a right pain, I can tell you). Both songs seem to work as a way of putting the earlier songs into some kind of context, of making 'Harvest Moon' seem more than just a man moaning about getting old. For a start, Neil isn't moaning - the life experiences he's had have all shaped him for the better and are 'natural' and authentic rather than artificial, a theme that crops up a lot across this record. Aging is nature's way and mankind's interference with Mother Nature, though the lyrics don't relate to aging per se, are 'bad': children don't dreams of towns and industrial landscapes but the rugged countryside, while 'no one' wins in a war of man where life is 'safer' and happens at the speed it's meant to (of course, Neil being Neil, 'War Of Man' also appears on the same album as a song that's effectively a hymn to a gas-guzzling motorbike). 'Natural Beauty', generally seen as the only weak song of the bunch, is actually amongst Neil's most fascinating, using this contradictory theme throughout as Neil tries hard to preserve 'natural beauty' for the ages - which of course means that it's no longer natural at all but artificially kept in a way that time won't wear it down or wither it. Reflecting that he's a 'lucky man' for living at a time when Earth hadn't yet given up all her precious spoils, Neil also wastes the chance - buying a pair of 'seamless pants' and throwing away a piece of pure inspiration 'into an anonymous all of digital sound' (an early advert for his pono players perhaps?!) Time crops up a lot across this record, usually in the personal and often when we're wasting it or aging, but by including two ecological protest songs hot on the heels of 1990's 'Mother Earth' Neil seems to be making a bigger case of this: that nature should be allowed to take its course and that our attempts to stem the tide are doomed to failure.
There is, you see, for all this album's surface sweetness and light and whispered sounds a dark side of the Harvest Moon. Dogs die, friends come and go and relationships that started with such promise fizzle out, while man is fighting a senseless war against the planet that has already offered him so much. Most of the songs on 'Harvest Moon' have a twist: the heroine of 'Unknown Legend' gets a 'faraway look in her eyes' while she wonders what unmarried life might have been like; 'Such A Woman' appears to be the perfect love song but it ends so ominously: 'No one else can kill me like you do' - this is a couple that know each other so well that their words can be used to wound as well as support, another side effect of aging. The big one, though, is 'Dreamin' Man', a song that sounds so innocuous and pretty it's a shock when it turns out to be a song about a killer/stalker suffering from hallucinations, pulling up to pursue his prey 'with a loaded gun and sweet dreams of you' (the only 'clue' is the chorus intoning 'he's got a problem' and even that sounds kind of cute the way Nicolette Larsson and co sing it). Though 'Ragged Glory' sounds the tougher, heavier album because of the feedback and noise, it's actually 'Harvest Moon' that packs more devilish imagery and weight into its words, proof that you don't have to be shouting to make a point sound important.
Released at a time when Neil's - what is this now, third? - comeback was in the ascendency, 'Harvest Moon' was rated as many critics' album choice of the year back in 1992, hailed as milestone return from one of the few writers who still had something left to give in the 20th century's last and most nostalgic decade. There's more than a few fans who fell in love with Neil's work at this point and for whom this album holds a special place. It's certainly amongst the better crafted and thought out works of the second half of Neil's career, the detail and hard work putting a lie to his usual 'first thought, best thought' routine. This mixture of thoroughness and leaving tracks just enough alone not to topple them reveals a far greater grasp of the material than what occurred on both 'Harvest' and 'Comes A Time'. What 'Harvest Moon' lacks, however, is the career peaks of the first album and the excellent consistency of the second, with a slightly dodgy and overcooked second side and a first that tends to meander. The pair of songs 'One Of These Days' and 'Such A Woman' lack the clever wit and twists and turns of the rest of the album songs (even if it is good to hear Neil worrying about the people he's cast off and left behind for a change and revealing his inner self without his usual barriers - both reasons worth praising in an era when most artists had stopped pushing outside their comfort zones, though it's a shame they don't result in better songs). 'Harvest Moon' is undeniably beautiful, which is I suppose all a track really needs to be, though it's beautiful in a slightly emptier, more mainstream way than over Neil love ballads, a far cry from the intensity of 'Like A Hurricane' for instance. 'Old King' is hilarious once and slightly irritating thereafter, it's upbeat banjos and surging chorus barking up the wrong tree on an album that otherwise has been so careful about its overall sound. 'Dreamin' Man' is just odd and out of step with the record in being the one song here that's character-based, not drawn from real life (at least, so you hope...you're outside my house right now aren't you Neil? Help! Phew, it's just the Spice Girls sick at my jokes about them...wait, actually that's worse), albeit oddly beautiful all at the same time.
Nonetheless there are some truly great moments across this record that reveal Neil's confidence in his muse is well placed and his delicate natural touch on the details of a record was rarely better than here. The way the chorus suddenly kicks in on 'From Hank To Hendrix' plus the sheer physicality in the lyrics of a girl hitting air as she travels on a motorbike reflecting her colliding thoughts takes us from 0-60 (sixty to zero?) with class, summing up a relationship you can buy into almost instantly. 'You and Me's unusual folk pickings and some of the best harmony singing outside CSNY between Neil and Nicolette is spine-tinglingly perfect, pure in its very sparseness. 'War Of Man' is a production triumph, a gorgeous display of passive-aggression as Neil makes his point though poetry and atmosphere. condensing his usual unhinged rage on these matters into a single weary chorus line. And 'Natural Beauty' is gorgeous, a song that takes the long way round, revelling in the brilliance of the moment for eleven precious minutes as Neil debates what it is to be alive and wishes he could preserve the moments that are so special - but of course their very fleetingness is what made them so special in the first place. A production epic using crickets, backing singers, an organ and the sounds of the Brazilian Rainforest, it's a more sophisticated sequel to 'Mother Earth', asking just what exactly it is about the Earth that Neil wants to 'preserve'. The result isn't quite my favourite Neil Young moment of the 1990s as it seems to be for most other people (this record's polar opposite, the obtuse and elliptical 'Sleeps With Angels' is probably the winner there), but it may well be my favourite album of 1992 (not much competition there admittedly) and is certainly an impressively mature and well crafted CD. Neil deserved every last accolade he reaped on this rare journey back from the 'ditch' to the 'highway', though we're probably also a little bit pleased he didn't stay there.
'Unknown Legend' sounds amazingly still for a song that's full of such action and turbulence, as Neil tries to see life through wife Pegi's eyes, though the song still appears to be narrated by him. One minute she's there working in a diner where this mad new customer she doesn't know 'used to order just to watch her walk across the floor'. She's had a disrupted childhood, moving from town to town as her dad changes jobs, that sense of movement and freedom matched by her passion for her Harley Davidson bike that can take her anywhere at speed. To some extent she lost all that when she married Neil, put her 'roots down' and became a mother tied to one place. That sense of freedom and wildness was what made Pegi appeal to Neil in the first place and she effectively traded that to be his wife. Though Neil doesn't say it - this is a descriptive song rather than a philosophical argument - the hint is that Neil has risked killing the thing in her that he loved, feeling guilty over the 'faraway look in her eyes' as she ponders her old life and the way her new one might have turned out. The 'magic' kiss that Neil promised her now seems less magical when it comes with the reality of 'dressing two kids'. Though musically little happens in this song, which by Neil standards sits in one place and one chord for a very long time indeed, it's impressively far from boring as Neil adds just enough of a change in the dreamy memory filled chorus to offer hope and contrast. It's an impressively brave opening song for an album, sucking you in slowly and the melody only making its presence felt when you know the album really well. It's the lyrics, though, that stand out the most: though traditionally Neil tends to work in symbols and metaphors (at least compared to his more 'truthful' CSN colleagues) this is proof that his observant eye can do 'real' as well as anybody. Most impressive of all, there is no resolution, the song switching between weary present and wild past in a cycle that sounds as if it will run long past the end of the song. And there, nagging away at the heart of the song is the unanswered question: was giving up all that freedom really worth it? A special song.
'From Hank To Hendrix' seems at first like a mistake placed here - the melody really isn't that different to 'Unknown Legend' and comes at the same slightly sluggish tempo. Thematically though it's the same song from a slightly different perspective. Neil worries that his marriage is hitting the rocks - already, some twenty years before the Darryl Hannah escapade - and goes through some memories of his own to dim the pain and trey to work out where it all went wrong. As with the last song, the message is that 'the same thing that makes you life can kill you in the end' - that expecting someone to change the things you fell in love with for a different sort of relationship is asking for trouble. Rather wonderfully Neil recalls his past in terms of the music he was into, the title putting us back in the era of The Shadows' Hank Marvin to Jimi Hendrix, before extending the metaphor to make the marriage a union that should have lasted the test of time the way his favourite music does because it's about the only thing that meant as much to him and that, like music at it's worst, the message became 'distorted' somewhere along the way. Of course, this being Neil the melody is nothing like either Hank or Hendrix: it's another folky acoustic song with some added accordion and some great Ben Keith pedal steel. Perhaps the closest song in style to 'Harvest' and it's worry about the future, the point is reinforced by the return of James Taylor and Linda Rondstadt, who both sang on 'Heart Of Gold'. The bigger link, thoughy, is with 'I Believe In You' from 'After The Goldrush', a song that's more about the narrator wondering if he can believe in someone else, whatever the catchy chorus seems to be saying. Here Neil reflects that, for what it's worth, he made the right decision all those years ago: 'I don't believe in much' he sighs, 'But I believe in you'. Another excellent song.
'You and Me' is a third strong in a row, lesser known than it's two companions but every bit as startling. Neil started the song in 1974, somewhere between 'On The Beach' and 'Zuma', and it's at one with the other 'wakening from a bad spell' acoustic songs of the period like 'Deep Forbidden Lake' (released on 'Decade' but recorded around now). Neil only ever got as far as the opening two verses though, a comment on how time flies and a memory of a couple 'making love beneath a tree'. Neil often comes back to his discarded songs over years, even the unfinished ones, and finally polished this track off some eighteen years later - as far as we know the longest gestation period of all his songs. It could be that he simply couldn't have written 'You and Me' in 1974: this is an older man's song, not so much about a couple meeting but a couple staying the course. Though the couple are in love and share much, they are also two very different people - Neil recalls years of 'the guitar fighting the TV' as both of them try to relax in very different ways, which of course doesn't make them relax at all. This isn't just a break-up song though: Neil reflects later that 'true love conquers all', even the strongest of differences if it's strong enough, and urges either himself, his lover or both to 'open up their eyes' to love and 'let the light back in'. The verse that people remember though comes at the end when we seem to be returning to meet 'Old Man', the character from 'Harvest' and Neil reveals that this time he's talking about himself, a touch of grey in his hair and children of his own. The young man of '24' on the original song worried about his future made his choices and doesn't regret them 'when he hears his children call' - but it's not been the fairytale romance he once dreamed of and the pair of lovers remain two separate entities, the 'you' and 'me' of the title. It's the performance of this song that makes a very good song great, though, returning to the sparse guitar-and-voices telling that Neil saves for all his most important 'relationship' songs on 'Comes A Time' and 'Hawks and Doves' etc. Neil's acoustic picking and his vulnerable voice are gorgeous, every weary pressing forward of each little chord change sounding huge in the context of such silence, as if every slight note and move forward comes at a cost. Better yet is Nicolette Larsson's harmony vocal on one of the most striking guest appearances of any Young album, her gorgeous warm harmonies bringing out the warmth in his voice (only CSN's ever sounded better wrapped around his) and turning this solo song of doubt into a duet, two lovers dancing round each other. Each twist and turn of their ghostly voices hang in the air, both scanning each other to see where this relationship can go next. The song, cleverly, ends on a question mark, a plea to let the light back in that for once isn't answered and has Neil singing alone. Gorgeous.
'Harvest Moon' isn't so much a comedown as a chance to draw breath. The album's hit single (well, it hit #36 in the UK and an impressive #36 in Canada though it flopped in America strangely - even so it was his best-selling in at least two countries since 'Heart Of Gold' from the original 'Harvest'), it's a beautiful love song that successfully conjures up feeling of intimacy and makes good use of the acoustic-guitars-and-voices texture that's the backbone of the album, with the closest on the album to Neil's usual guitar riffs. There's even a clever and distinctive rhythm part played on a broom of all things, conjuring up images of the housework and routine being literally swept aside by this sudden moment of impulse. The lyrics return to the theme of remembering the good times as, with the children safely in bed, the married couple in the song can dance like the young lovers they used to be, dancing to an older moon in the 'Autumn' of their lives than the one they first danced under all those years ago. However, compared to the best of this album 'Harvest Moon' is a little one-note, without the twists and turns or sense of achievement and unspoken longing of the three tracks we've heard so far. That isn't, by itself, a bad thing - if every song on an album is an epic you tend to lose sight of how rare and difficult it is to make a complex song work. But in the context of the detailed and carefully plotted songs that make up most of the record this one feels a little unfinished. Take the finale for instance: we get a long great rambling solo, which features some nice harmonica playing but not much else going on, and the pay-off is merely yet another repeat of the chorus, for the third time in the song. The song places so much important on the hook in this chorus that it's rather a shame Neil uses one of his worst rhymes in that spot too: 'you' and 'moon', which isn't even 'June' and 'moon'. Even so, this is far from bad and another nice performance featuring a lovely Linda Ronstadt harmony part does much to enhance the mood.
'War Of Man' is another much under-rated track, an atmospheric piece that makes a lot from using very little. We've heard ecological rants from Neil for years but this is one of his best, with a real sense of drama and desperation, performed with an impressive icy aloofness and winteryness. It's essentially a song of maternal love, both between all species' adults and their young and the bigger idea of a Mother Earth taking care of all of us. This 'warmth of ages' has always been there, but man - painted here as a 'tired warrior' - always has to aim a 'little higher, using his technology that could be used for good ('healing light') more often for bad ('the flash of the barrel'). Though man can and does care for animals, more often he hurts and kills them - and though mankind is the stronger animal and usually the victor, no one really wins in a war of man. A second verse repeats Noah's ark, animals running to safety two by two, but this time it's away from mankind whose there to attack them, not to save them (it might be worth pointing out all that the flood myth is sad to have been caused because of mankind's arrogance in the first place, so he effectively wiped out every innocent animals except the pairs that Noah saved). Waiting, though, is not safety but a trap of poisonous gas and machine guns. A final verse has a little girl dreaming, 'the sky her playground' as she imagines herself on horseback embracing nature - so why do so many little children turn into killers, exploiting nature for material greed? It's a question that's vexed Neil for years - at least since 'Here We Are In The Years' from his first album - and he's no closer to finding out a solution now. An impressive backing track makes the most of its sudden swells of power, with Neil's pretty guitarwork suddenly sounding small and feeble against the onslaught of the closest to a full-on band across the whole album. Tim Drummond's bass is particularly strong, running at a different tempo to the other instruments as he mocks and challenges the relentless march at every turn, moving headlong into oblivion. The greatest moment though, surely, is that final verse when Neil hands the reality of mankind over to the imagination of that little girl and the vocals over to Nicolette and Neil's sister Astrid for a truly sublime bit of music, pure and golden in contrast to the slog of the rest of the song. Neil's vocal too is one of his best, understatedly angry as he looks down on a scene he can do nothing to prevent. The song then ends on a sad, slow march, as if the band are disappearing down the crest of a hill into total annihilation which most people haven't even seem coming. Another exceptional track.
Side two moves away from the countryside to Neil's sitting room where he's finally plucked up the courage to write a 'long' letter 'to all the good friends I've known'. Only he doesn't know what to say after so many years of not speaking to good people and feeling slightly ashamed of being out of contact for so long, so instead he procrastinates like mad, writing a song about it instead. He still promises himself that 'one of these days' he'll actually do it - but you kind of know he won't. The song then turns into one of those songalogues we get from Neil every so often full of memories about his past (see 'Helpless' 'Journey Through The Past' and much later 'Born In Ontario'). Neil wants to thank 'that old stiff fiddle player' (perhaps George Whitsell, one time a member of Crazy Horse and a guest on 'Running Dry') and 'all those rough boys who play that rock and roll' (perhaps Crazy Horse themselves), before talking about the places he's lived and worked 'from L.A. down to Nashville, New York City to my Canadian Prairie Home'. A kind of 'This Is Your Life' with the guests all absent, Neil reflects on how his friends are 'scattered' round the world 'like leaves from an old Maple' and regrets not putting in more effort to stay in touch. This is a nice sentiment and proves that Neil is grown up enough to confess to his often callous ditching for former friends and colleagues, leaving them waiting round for him to call them again. The fact that Neil is back working with the 'Stray Gators' on this song for the first time in twenty years also proves that Neil does sometimes get back in touch, even if takes him a while. However there's not enough going on in 'One Of These Days' to sustain a chorus, never mind a song, as Neil repeats the title so many times he could have picked up the phone and rung up at least four old friends in the time it takes to play this track out. The melody is also a step down from most on this album, with the chorus full of intoned voices, the weakest on the album. I have, however, wondered if the 'it won't be long' chorus is a terrific in-joke: back when Neil was in a school band doing Shadows covers (there's Hank Marvin cropping up again) his first ever vocal was on a cover of The Beatles' 'It Won't Be Long' (the opening track of second LP 'With The Beatles'). Is that how this song got started perhaps, with Neil trying to remember how to play his first starring moment and then moving to think about all the musicians he's played with since over the years?
Neil can be many frustrating things at times - repetitive, obtuse and raw - but I don't think he could ever have been accused of being schmaltzy before. 'Such A Woman' is his cheesiest song, an unwelcome repeat of the over-lush orchestras of 'Harvest' on 'There's A World' and 'A Man Needs A Maid' that sounds more like something Barry White should be doing. Any fan who jumped on board the Neil Young bandwagon after 'Ragged Glory' and 'Weld' probably threw this album away now, with Neil's muted voice surrounded only by full on strings and piano. There is, however, a strong song in here somewhere as Neil pays tribute to Pegi once more with the understanding that their closeness is a double edged sword: that such secret knowledge of each other's deepest feelings can be used for harm as well as good. The melody too is rather lovely, slow and stately and serene and quite unlike anything Neil had ever done before. The fact it's not entirely successful is due to the fact that the effect is just so overpowering: this album, especially, has been about the cold hard reality not fairytales and several songs on this album already have challenged this song's sentiment 'our love will live on till the end of time'. Though it's great to hear working with one of his first and loudest supporters in Jack Nitzsche, this track's arrangement is a pale copy of Buffalo Springfield classic 'Expecting To Fly', lacking the same fragile beauty and sense of awe. Perhaps the weakest track on the album, though when an album is strong enough for a song this half-promising to be the weakest link that's still an impressive score.
'Old King' is the joker in the musical pack, Neil's tribute to his faithful hound Elvis who died in 1991 after one chase after rabbits too many. Neil has always been close to his dogs (Art, famously, used to tour with him and CSNY used to say they knew they were playing well when he wondered on stage to listen) and had Elvis longer than most, for more or less as long as he'd owned the ranch and met Pegi. This reminder of mortality and the fleetingness of life may well have been what started him thinking down this album's themes of the impermanence of life and relationships. However, though the song is given country touches thanks to the Ben Keith overdub special of banjo and pedal steel, it's no great weepie 'my dog died' tragedy but a comedy of sorts, with some heavy dog breathing on the opening and Neil impressively down to earth as he sings 'Old King' sure meant a lot to me - but that hound dog is history'. The banjo tune, too, cleverly mimics the speed and style of an enthusiastic dog, while Kenny Buttrey's brush work sounds rather like the heavy breathing of a canine too. It's a shame though in a way that Neil didn't stick with his original plan of making this a song about 'Elvis' dying in the 15th anniversary year since his passing - and then fooling people by revealing in the end that he meant his dog. Neil, worried about how people might misconstrue that idea, renamed him 'Old King', a phrase he's never used with his real dog, and made the parallels less obvious. Neil may have had the traditional 'my dog has died song' 'Old Blue' (as recorded by The Byrds for 'Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde' in 1969) in mind too, for which this song is a wittier alternative. An album as weighed down with high concepts as 'Harvest Moon' is needs a bit of release in there somewhere, but it's probably fair to say that 'Old King' doesn't have quite the same lasting appeal as some of the other songs.
'Dreamin' Man' is if anything even more of an oddball. The one song on the album that doesn't sound like Neil singing about himself, his loved ones or his pets it's a tale of a crazed stalker out to kill. Though the title sounds serene - Neil has described himself as a 'dreamer of pictures' before now in 'Cinnamon Girl' after all - this is a dream that's been taken too far, with imagination now more real for the narrator than his own life ('I can't tell when I'm not being real'). The cleverness of the song though is that we don't notice - just as for the narrator the idea of following a girl with 'a loaded shotgun and sweet dreams of you' seems normal, so this song sounds just as natural and beautiful and confessional as all the others on this album. Neil never shouts or raises his voice or moves above his natural sweet tones so it's hard to catch what this song is really about unless you're really paying attention. However what he's singing about is fairly horrific: he 'feels your curves and vibrations' as he senses his past lover/someone he's never met and he returns, homeless, to the street at the end of the song, dreaming of being alive in 'another time, a different civilisation' where he isn't on the run for stalking and murdering the woman he loves. The guitar riff at the heart of this song is one of Neil's loveliest, just to rub in how natural this all seems for the narrator, while the backing chorus chant 'he's got a problem' in the soft cooing ways of a lullaby rather than a tale of murder. A total one off in the Neil Young canon, this is a song that fools us at every turn and comes as a shock when you've played this record perhaps for years before deciphering the code as to what it's about. On an album that's so revealing, it sticks out like anything though the twist is that it doesn't stick out at all, played in the exact same sound and feel as every other song on the album. Is this Neil pushed so far to the limits he imagines himself as a stalker? (Is this song an early example of following Darryl Hannah and trying to stop anyone else finding out?) Is it Neil trying to play with us and fool us into assuming he's slotting into a template? Whatever the cause, sadly this song is only really interesting for the mystery of why it's here - though the melody is nice, the lyrics are slightly clunky by Neil's standards and the performance falls a bit flat compared to his best. Still, trust Neil to throw a curveball in right at the end of his most commercial album in decades - for that alone this song deserves respect.
Closing number 'Natural Beauty' is 10:22 precious minutes of atmosphere and debate. It's one of Neil's most striking and deepest songs, featuring the same rambling technique as 1977's 'Will To Live' as Neil reflects on birth, death, life and nature's laws. Recorded live at a show in Oregon and given overdubs later, it's fittingly a song that wonders about how much of something's essence can ever be preserved. Neil starts by hearing a new born baby cry, life renewing itself in a natural way, his very 'realness' contrasted with the sound he records the cries on, 'an anonymous wall of digital sound' (perhaps his obsession with creating his pono sound technology starts here). He moves on to discuss how much of the Amazon has been lost, never to be replenished, reflecting 'a greedy man never knows what he's done' and seeing an Earth so close to death that, in the context of her many years, there's 'just one more night to go'. A final verse then has Neil wasting his days, buying a brand new gus-guzzling Chevrolet and a new 'pair of seamless pants', both of which has contributed to the greenhouse emissions breaking the world, watching the world decay on a giant TV screen - the ultimate 'denial', as the world decays in part because of the electricity and power needed to make the TV screen work in the first place. The central idea though is the theme of preservation: natural beauty should be seen as a monument to how great nature is and how mankind shouldn't be messed with. But the very idea of something natural means that it cannot be preserved - that no matter how hard mankind tries to keep something, it's aging and decay that's the natural process and it's living our lives understanding that fact which is the real tribute to nature. In between the song are weaved some amazing instrumental passages, as Neil's acoustic guitar and harmonica weave together against the overdubbed exotic sound of the marimbas and the song's slow stately melody meanders gloriously, enjoying all the scenic stop off points along the way and making the verses all the more powerful as you wait in anticipation for the next one. Throughout the song Neil sounds as if he's trying to hurry, that his harmonica puffing especially is trying to drive some urgency into the track, but just as people seem to have closed their ears to climate change so the song keeps at his own slow pace. There's a twist though, of sorts, with the overdubs from the sound effects CD 'A Month In The Brazilian Rainforest', which overpower the song at the end, bursting into glorious spontaneous noise after such a highly disciplined ten minute track. Is this mankind doing the right thing and letting nature 'win' the war of man? is this hope that the future will be different than our past? Whatever the result, it's a memorable moment on a memorable song. Though many fans and critics consider 'Natural Beauty' the weakest link on the record actually I see it as one of the best moments on the album, asking difficult questions and remaining impressively detached whilst simultaneously being quietly moving. The song needs to be as long as it is to make the full impact, the meandering parts of the track being just as central to the 'argument' about things running at a natural speed without being sped-up and featuring some sublime playing from Neil, as well as a final glorious burst on harmonies on what might well be the best 'vocal' Neil Young album that doesn't feature CSN or Crazy Horse.
The end result is a quietly impressive album that's gloriously deep but also remarkably accessible, Neil keeping us updated about the changes in his hopes, wishes and fears since the release of 'Harvest' twenty years earlier. It would have been fun, actually, to have had Neil return to this concept in another twenty years' time (we got 'Psychedelic Pill' instead) with another update on how things had changed ('Harvest Festival' anyone?) However as it remains 'Harvest Moon' is a clever paean to middle age, worried that things might not last the way they are and open about the problems growing older has created, but equally ready to count its blessings and realise that some good things have come out of the intervening years. Not every track is a classic and the second half can't match the first, but there's enough of worth here to demonstrate that the first part of the 1990s was a real peak for Neil's muse and he was right to name-check his most famous album, with a record that's just as user-friendly but also slightly deeper and consistent. There's enough here for Neil to plough the fields of opportunity again and enjoy his sudden return to the spotlight after the difficult 1980s and for those who came to this after going through the Geffen years it's great to hear Neil so open about himself and those closest to him. The muse moon is full once again and this year's harvest a bumper one once again, even there are a lot of wheat to separate from the chaff.