Monday, 25 July 2016
Neil Young "Harvest" (1972)
Out On The Weekend/Harvest/A Man Needs A Maid/Heart Of Gold/Are You Ready For The Country?//Old Man/There's A World/Alabama/The Needle and The Damage Done/Words (Between The Lines Of Age)
"My life is changing in so many ways, I don't know who to trust anymore..."
'Harvest' is one of those so-called 'classic albums' I've always felt a little...uneasy about. Like most people who come to an artist a few records in, buying the record everyone else was raving about early on seemed an obvious move - it's certainly what's worked with several of the other AAA artists over the years. But as any Young fan will tell you, Neil's sprawling back catalogue works somewhat differently and every album is different - the trick is to start with one of the better albums that will pique your interest enough to try the rest. Despite its reputation as Neil's highest seller and the album with Neil's only #1 single on it (so far) 'Harvest' isn't a good beginner's guide in the same way that, say, 'Revolver' is for The Beatles or 'Dark Side Of The Moon' is for Floydians. By contrast to these two 'Harvest' lacks consistency and sounds nothing like any other album Neil will ever make and though it contains many of his best songs, it contains plenty of his worst as well. The period reviews, after all, were scathing and damned Neil for not even trying in the wake of the fairly well received 'After The Goldrush' before the album sold in such bucketfuls it began to get more grudgingly accepting comments from people who accepting that Neil had tapped into...'something'. In truth, though, the original reviewers are right: 'Harvest' is, by most Neil standards, a mess. Not worthless by any means (there are plenty of worse albums in the Young catalogue to come) but a mess certainly - and can any classic album truly be a mess?
So why did this album do so well? There are two reasons: one is the extra publicity given over to Neil after his part in the CSNY album 'Deja Vu' (the first time many fans had truly known his name unless they were lucky enough to be cult Buffalo Springfielders); the other is that no other Neil Young album ever had quite such a strong fit for the pulse of the world at a particular time. 'Harvest', more by luck than design, is a perfect fit for the sensitive singer-songwriter brace of albums of the early 1970s and even features two of the most famous singer-songwriters guesting (James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt) - again by chance, not design (Neil just called up his friends - he wouldn't have had a clue they were popular in the 'real' world at all). It's a thoughtful, mellow look at the then-present day with just enough bite and anger left over from the 1960s for the songs to not stick together. Many tracks are acoustic, while some use a full orchestra - both were 'in' across 1972. Neil's unusual vulnerable quivering voice, so out of step with more commercial years, was also perfect for an era when music was about depth and expression and what was 'hidden' while his shadowy persona helped rather than hindered, compared to most years that were all about looks and sales figures. The trouble is, we know now that by comparison with future Neil epics, there isn't really much depth to this rather flimsy-but-cute album at all: while the most famous moments work as timelessly as ever ('Old Man' 'The Needle and The Damage Done' and at a push 'Heart Of Gold') most of the rest which sounded daringly Dylanesque and quixotic in 1972 now sounds over-written and a little soul-less.
I'll tell you a bit more where I'm coming from. I'm not a fan who was alive in 1972 and Neil hasn't just arrived out of nowhere as the fourth member of the period's hippest band (in fact CSN are by my era so unhip I couldn't have picked a worse band for trying to look cool - but I still got to hear all the great music they made, so hey ho I can live with that). 'Harvest' is fifteen years old and the goods are beginning to look a little mouldy. Given that most of the record shops and fairs I knew were a long way from my house (and you can only play one album at once if you're buying a pile of things) my first interaction with most of my future albums, both loved and loathed, came from the vinyl or CD lyric booklets. 'Harvest' has long been talked about as a great 'lyrics' and 'ideas' album, with several modern-day commentators discussing how Neil had been on the pulse of a nation and provided a sense of wonder tinged with dissatisfaction about how the world works combined with a sense of fragility and natural endings. 'Sounds my like sort of record' I thought to myself so I turned to the opening line of the lyric booklet to get a short sense of that thrill, awe and wonder and got met with the immortal line: 'I think I'll pack it in and buy a pick-up!' Seriously? Depression over the state of the nation summed up in a line about switching second-hand vehicles? Not what I was expecting as the mirror to hold up to an entire era. The rest of 'Out On The Weekend' didn't really get much authentic. Nor, really, did much of the rest of the record. Maybe the words will work better with the music I thought - which they did, but not to the point where the lyrics suddenly slotted into place and made sense. It doesn't help that I had a habit at the time of playing records backwards on first hearing, because that's where the best songs usually tended to be. On this album the last track is a song titled 'Words (Between The Lines Of Age)', which even many of Neil's biggest fans liken to six minutes' worth of having their teeth pulled. You can tell a lot about an album from its cover - not necessarily how good it is, but at least how much thought went into it - and before you actually hear an album a cover is highly important for shaping your expectations and experiences about it. 'Harvest', for the few of you that Don't know, features the artist name and album title in black on an off-colour yellow (see, I told you it was going mouldy...) and a hint of a glowing sun behind the lettering. That's it. None of the clever fuzzy photography of 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' and 'After The Goldrush' that change the way you look at the world or the full-frontal facial cover of 'Neil Young'. Just the basics, as plain as they can be.
To be fair, the album does improve the more you learn to know and understand it. One of the real reasons for Harvest's success down the years is that it manages to paint a brutally ugly view of the world without losing touch with love, in all it's complicated deflating terms (Neil is still feeling the fall-out of his first marriage to Susan Avacedo, as he was on 'Goldrush' - this is, by and large, the last album about their time together, while 'A Man Needs A Maid' is a first 'hello' song to second wife Carrie Snodgrass. It's a point often missed but this album came out on Valentine's Day; given that 'Harvest' had been pretty much finished for months before release - Neil delayed things partly so he his back could heal and he could tour this album - the choice of date seems likely to have been deliberate). As seems to happen with many Neil albums down the years (but this is probably the first), it was written and recorded in very different circumstances: Neil wasn't that miserable when he wrote this album (loosely during the early 'Deja Vu' sessions when all was still light and healthy and the band hadn't been hit yet by squabbles, Crosby's fiancé's untimely death, Stills' nasty fall from a horse and Nash's split with Joni Mitchell in quick succession), but he sure was when he recorded it: Neil's back, never strong after a childhood wracked with polio, badly hurt his back muscles trying to move a paving slab for his new ranch and recorded most of the album in short bursts and a back brace as he found it agonising to stand for too long. Neil's close friend and fellow Crazy Horse Danny Whitten, already dismissed from the 'Goldrush' sessions for an ongoing drug problem, Od'd on money Neil gave him to fly home and the guilt will stick with him across some very bumpy rides over the next few years. No wonder this album sounds 'heavy' - though written partly in fun ('Are You Ready For The Country?' is Neil's playful side and 'There's A World' his idealist side) it was recorded on a diet of painkillers and sadness (this album really needs a Danny Whitten to bring out it's extra shadows and dimensions and Neil would have been as aware of that as anybody) and everything sounds 'down', even the happy songs. Fooled by the breezy confidence of hit single 'Heart Of Gold', many fans bought this album expecting the same - but actually Neil's in a very dark place, the central theme of the whole record our strapline about life changing in 'oh so many ways' as Neil's possible futures shoot past him like shadows (even 'Heart Of Gold' isn't actually a happy song when you study it, but a pained one about having to search for love without reward). By the time the songs made it onto tape, the mood in the room had changed and it shifts the performance of everything. There's even a verse in 'Out On The Weekend' where Neil tries hard to express his happiness and tell us that he's too mad with gladness to speak - it could have been performed as optimistic and jolly, but the words come out in an abstract jumble that sounds dead miserable ('Can't relate to joy, he tries to speak and can't begin to say'). The ultimate sound of the album comes over much like the state Neil was in when he was making it: gritting his teeth and stubbornly trying to hold it together and keep an unmovable force from coming out of alignment through the pain (notwithstanding the sheer extra weight of the back brace, which I swear you can feel yourself on a number of these tracks). People often call 'Harvest' laidback for its mixture of slow tempos, country-rock roots and introvert vibe - actually Neil it's an album of great pain, with the singer laid up partly because of his back.
For all that, 'Harvest' is still quite a pretty album which works better as a 'melodies' record than it does as a 'lyrics' or 'ideas' one. Even by Neil's standards 'Harvest' features a slow combination of tempos (none of the songs are fast, only 'Alabama' and 'Words' close to feeling 'heavy') but unlike some future Young albums that can become slightly meandering, most of these songs are beautiful enough to hold your interest right to the end. This album actually works at its best at the quiet moments between the vocals with many tracks on this album featuring long slow build-ups ('Out On The Weekend' 'Heart Of Gold' 'Needle' and 'Old Man especially), with memorably named new backing band The Stray Gators content just to wallow in the moment with that lilting melancholia that Neil just can't quite shake off even on the happier songs. Most of these songs seem memorable on first hearing - another reason this record caught on and sold so well at the time - and the tunes say far more than the lyrics ever seem to. The trouble is, though, Neil isn't experienced enough to leave things there yet so quite often these lovely melodies are exaggerated and pulled out of alignment. The full-on country rock backing mars both the title track and 'Are You Ready For The Country?' which could have been so much more done simpler (Neil hasn't cottoned onto his 'first thought best thought' mantra yet). The Stray Gators stray a little too often off the path (though no more than the Goldrush performers - and understandably given that the session musicians had never met before the first date; poor Tim Drummond was walking across a road with his bass guitar when Neil spotted him and asked if he was busy and ushered him into the studio still protesting...), with only Neil's new best friend Ben Keith and his magical pedal steel coming up to scratch, starting a musical friendship that will outlast all others in Neil's life up until Ben's death in 2010. And then there's the album's two biggest controversies as old pal Jack Nietszche adds what can only be described as a prog rock Mantovani arrangement on top of 'A Man Needs A Maid' and 'There's A World' (two songs that are actually amongst the best on this album when heard in stripped down form in concert).
Thematically, this is an album linked loosely by references to the new great love in Neil's life: not Carrie, at least not yet, but the sprawling ranch Neil bought when he broke up with Susan in Portola Valley, California the singer renamed 'Broken Arrow' in reference to his Buffalo Springfield song that helped pay for it, the American Indian settlers thought to have lived there long ago and his hope that he would find peace after a troubled start to the decade. Most songs on this album refer to it: the album even starts with 'Out On The Weekend' with Neil walking away from his old home on his way 'to work' (on tour?) keeping half-an-eye out for somewhere new he can move to so he doesn't have to go back; 'Heart Of Gold' is the sound of a weary man whose looked everywhere for love except at home; 'Are You Ready For The Country?' is an early hint at Neil's love of Nashville (where much of this album was recorded) that celebrates not country music so much as the country way of living, back in the earth and the fat of the land a million miles away from the superstardom of Laurel Canyon; 'There's A World' cries 'we are leaving - we are gone' as Neil sees a dream 'in the mountains' and at least feels the contentment he's long sort 'walking down the avenue' (potentially of his new home, though Broken Arrow isn't exactly close to any avenues); 'Alabama', the song of discontent, drama and prejudice that incensed Alabamers Lynyrd Skynyrd into writing a 'reply' song, is notably a populated city many miles emotionally and geographically from where Neil wants to move to; anti-drug song 'The Needle and The Damage Done' is another song that's scathing about busy city life; finally even the seemingly nonsensical 'Words' has Neil's narrator at the start of the song where he should be at last, 'out in the fields'. The famous example, of course, is 'Old Man', a song Neil wrote not for his dad and famous sports writer Scott as many people think (including, reportedly, Scott himself when he first heard it), but Louis Avila the elder ranch-hand Young got on with during the sale of the estate and Neil was keen to keep-on, later calling him a father figure (it's interesting to compare this with Stephen Stills' song 'Johnny's Garden' written for the first Manassas album this same year which pays a similar compliment to a father-substitute figure). Tied up with all this is the last uneasy songs of farewell to Susan ('Out On The Weekend' starts the album with a 'goodbye' song), depression that Neil's never going to find anybody as good despite endless searching ('Heart Of Gold') and finally the first stirrings of romance with Carrie (who is the academy-award winning 'actress' Neil sees on the movie screen in 'A Man Needs A Maid', 'playing a part that I could understand'). It's not the women though, but the ranch that flutters in and out of this album's tapestry as Neil's new home starts casting a magical spell on its new owner that survives up until this day.
Inevitably, Neil fell in love with the place enough to record some of this album there in addition to the Nashville sessions (partly to ease the strain on his back) - equally inevitably he chose not the rather handsome main house but a tatty old barn which will later house his and his son Ben's impressive model train collection. A man doesn't need a maid, it seems, so much as a home.
Perhaps it's that sense of home that so appealed to the music fans who bought this album in the millions. Perhaps it was the sense of melancholy and melody that makes this album sound a lot better on the surface than the slightly scruffily written songs underneath the tune and the emotion. Perhaps it's the feeling that 'Harvest' was so right for its times, something Neil was keen never to exploit again until this album's 20th anniversary on 'Harvest Moon' (a record that actually has more in common with 1978's 're-birth' record 'Comes A Time' than this rather down LP). Surely the presence of the hit single 'Heart Of Gold' and the much-played radio but-not-singles hits 'Old Man' and 'Damage Done' helped an awful lot too. A record-breaking appearance on CSNY's 'Deja Vu' (an album that, lest we forget, sold more copies than any single Neil Young record including this one) probably helped a lot too. Whatever the cause 'Harvest' is, ultimately, a record that got lucky - there's just about enough good songs for fans to overlook the bad, just enough strong performances to make up for the orchestra and just enough of a sense of theme and purpose to overcome what are, by Neil's standards, some deeply dodgy lyrics. Enjoy 'Harvest' by all means for its sweet sorrow, cracking tunes and - in 'Old Man' and 'A Man Needs A Maid' - two of the best songs Neil will ever write. Just don't do what I did and reap 'Harvest' too soon: it's not the classic record so many have made it out to be and lacks the power and consistency of the three solo records that came before it and the bravery of the 'Doom Trilogy' to come.
'Out On The Weekend' is a low-key start to a low-key album. Neil doesn't even sing for the opening fifty seconds or so as the track kind of lollops along like a less memorable 'Heart Of Gold' (a track already recorded by the time this one was made). Both songs are about searching for love and find Neil slightly cheesed off about it, but that one is abstract and metaphorical: this one is bluntly direct and disappointed. Neil yearns to start a 'brand new day', turning his back on a woman who sounds affectionate ('She loved me all up'), but the way Neil sings those lines suggests that the relationship is over and that when he says 'all up' he really means that here is nothing left in the relationship to be given. A chorus, of sorts (though it's really just the verse again with more guitars) has Neil struggling to 'make it pay', out on the road and struggling to come to terms with his own emotions (that 'Can't relate to joy' verse which could also be read both happy and sad but definitely sounds sad the way it's sung here). A sad Dylanesque harmonica solo compounds the misery before a final verse has Neil seemingly finding a 'new' 'place to call my own', but this place isn't the source of love and comfort, just another one-night stand. Neil's narrator is out-stared by the pictures on his lover's wall who seem to know what he's up to and he seemingly takes off in fright 'down the road', the typically abstract twist in the last line suggesting that this scene is taking place 'in her head'. Is this Neil's ex Susan imagining him getting up to mischief with lots of lovers, when really Neil is genuinely off out on the road playing with a band and staying loyal, yet knowing things are so bad between them he can never go home again? The last of the run of 'Susan songs', it's notable that Neil still imagines himself from her eyes and spends more time in this song thinking about her than about him. He'll do the same on his break-up-with-Pegi album 'Storytone' in 2014. An oddball lyric, then, that's tense and desperate to relate something to us, but the laidback melody and approach take the song in a quite different direction, as if Neil has one foot on the brake and another on the accelerator simultaneously. A typically wide-open-space performance means that so little is going on your imagination rather fills in the rest, but Ben Keith's colourful guitar-work is already embellishing Neil's lead nicely. Listen out for a moment around 2:03 when someone walks into a microphone and it's not just left in the mix but seemingly 'boosted' to sound louder: though Neil will end up doing this sort of thing a lot (see 'Tonight's The Night' especially), it sounds very 'wrong' here on one of Neil's most accessible albums.
With such a laidback opener you'd expect the title track of 'Harvest' to really pounce on the listener - but no, 'Harvest' is even slower, sadder, emptier and odder. One of the last songs from Neil's 'poetic' phase before the death of Danny Whitten inspired him to be more 'real' in his songs, this song is a series of rhetorical questions that involve a young girl and her mother ('in so much pain') while Neil's omnipotent narrator looks on without commenting (although you can feel his disapproval anyway somehow). Actually that's not quite right: that's what you're clearly meant to think because of the emphasis on the last line in each verse and the sour way Neil sings them, but in reality Neil switches moods a lot here between being supportive and icily detached (so he felt mixed feelings while writing it but was sure by the time he recorded it?) Another of the final songs for Susan, it's notable how much Neil's mother-in-law hovers across this song like a ghost (as per the similar 'Old Laughing Lady' near the beginning of their relationship) and it's a song that makes a lot more sense now that Neil is forty years removed from the relationship and can talk about it a lot more (a very private person, he genuinely loved his first wife but not her family who pretty much moved in with her and never gave him a moment's peace). On 'Laughing Lady' her frailty is genuine and brings husband and wife (or at least character and narrator) closer together with her sort-of unspoken blessing; here she's brutally tough and keeps 'waking' Neil's beloved to talk to her about a 'change of plan' that can only be their marriage. Neil could have been angry or vengeful but instead he treats the fact like a philosophical discussion, portraying events as they are and hinting that he knew these seeds were going to part of what he reaped with the marriage in the first place so he shouldn't be dismayed by the poor harvest he finds. At the same time, though, he still has hope and promises to 'fill your cup with the promise of a man' - note, though, that Neil never claims once in the song to be the man he refers to! An intriguing lyric, along with 'Maid' and 'Old Man' the best on the album, is rather let down by the plodding melody which does rather too good a job of hinting at the misery and depression hanging heavy over the song. All the fans who considered the title track of 'Harvest Moon' a direct sequel to this one are missing a trick: this song couldn't be sadder or more trapped, while it's 'companion' track is airy and light and bursting with love.
'A Man Needs A Maid' may well be the most misunderstood song in Neil's catalogue. Feminists jumped on it for its chauvinistic title, while fans just resented the OTT orchestra that leaps out with you with such sugary excess it sounds the antithesis of the usual 'real deal Neil' approach. While all opinions are to some extent valid (unless you're a Spice Girls fan - that's just plain wrong!), both sounds false to me. Neil's been so badly burnt by past relationships and so confused by how love makes him feel that he's vowed never to be emotionally attached again; though afraid he'll starve on his own, he wants a 'maid' to care for him because, well, it would be easier without all the asking-out-on-a-date or heartbreak stuff. What Neil really wants is a platonic relationship, but he used the word 'maid' because it was 1972 and men thought more like that back then and he quite fancied having a tidy place to put his guitars too. It's the 'go away' line that's the most telling: Neil needs someone to care for him, but to then back off and give him space (Neil didn't call himself 'The Loner' for nothing!)) Really though this whole song is a misnomer; as much as Neil wants a simple, no-strings-attached relationship his heart is clearly crying out for some deep connection and the idea of a partner he doesn't really love is clearly a cover-up for the hurt he feels; actually Neil feels so much he's scared himself. In one of his most open lyrics Neil offers us a 'goodbye' verse about the fall-out from his marriage with Susan and a 'hello' verse about his growing interest in Carrie, both of them surrounded with lines about confusion and wondering whether he can 'trust' anyone now life is so surreal and unfathomable. The second verse is patently autobiographical: a miserable Neil, not wanting to go home while on tour, went out to the pictures one night and saw 'A Diary Of A Mad Housewife', a so-so film with a stunning performance by new-comer Carrie Snodgrass. It's not just Neil who was besotted: Carrie won an academy award for her role in the film, making her the only AAA-related member to have one for an acting credit (though a few of our brethren have awards of their music). Neil got in touch (through mutual colleagues - he was far too shy to ask himself) and as he puts it 'fell in love with the actress - she was playing a part that I could understand'. Carrie will give up her day job to take care of Neil in exactly the way he longs for here and even after their divorce will stay a full-time mum to take care of her and Neil's son Zeke right up until the 1990s when she thankfully gets back into acting again (she's in an early episode of 'The X-Files' among other things where, funnily enough, she plays the wife of an abductee we never see and spends most of the episode talking about 'my weird husband'...he's never there!' An in-joke?) Anyway, back in the song, Neil's poignant finale 'When will I see you again?', which sits in contrast to his icy detachment everywhere else, is an absolute killer as Neil finally admits to himself that he's going to take the risk of getting hurt again anyway. Neitzsche's orchestration that so many fans hate is indeed a little OTT (and this song worked so much better as a solo piano ballad, as heard best on 'Live At Massey Hall 1971') but at least it 'fits'. Neil's emotion, which he's tried to keep at bay because he got so hurt the last time, is so strong it surges out of him almost without him realising, like a high budget film score on top of a film noir. We're clearly meant to read so much more in the song than what is there - and that's what makes it work so well. The clear album highlight, with a directness and lack of poetic mind-games refreshing for this album, Neil has rarely been more vulnerable - or more courageous. His lead vocal too is one of his best, at least on the first solo verse before he has to start competing with the orchestra. Odd trivia: this song's first and best verse ('My life is changing in so many ways...') is missing from the lyric booklets included in both the vinyl and CD booklets, even though we know it can't have been a late addition as Neil had been singing it in concert for almost a year before Harvest's release. A mistake? Or did Neil have second thoughts about being quite so open?
Though much better known, actually 'Heart Of Gold' isn't in the same league. A catchy melody, accessible lyric and some star guest performances were easily enough to make for a number one record in an era when Neil could do no wrong, but today most fans feel at best ambivalent about this track. To this day 'Heart Of Gold' remains Neil's only top thirty song and is likely the only track that a non-Neil fan could sing in the street (unless they're hip enough to know 'Rockin' In The Free World'). It's also the only Neil Young song generic enough to be covered lots of times in a number of different ways (funnily enough the second most likely in chart terms and covers is the same tune: 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart' from 'After The Goldrush'). Which is the sort of thing to make both artist and fans feel a little queasy. We've known for a long time that Neil could have had a string of catchy hits if he'd wanted them, but he'd never wanted them - except for this point in time. Why the change? Neil probably just wanted a hit and a chance to be more than just the 'and Young' at the end of a supergroup (it seems strange to think that until 'Harvest' Neil was by far the least known of CSNY). Though Neil had been singing about resenting fame since the first Buffalo Springfield album (and 'Out Of My Mind') he must have looked on jealously as his 'ex' Stills became one of the hottest acts on the planet; whether by coincidence or design 'Heart Of Gold' is the sort of song the all-rounder Stills would never have come up with: folk is one of the few styles Stills never really took to (though '4+20' has a flavour of it) and this song's mixture of directness and metaphor isn't really a Stills method of songwriting (all Stills songs are 'honest' somewhere, at least up till the late 1970s). Nor is this song's sad lugubriousness: Stills' songs run the gamut of emotions but he never quite wrote a song that matched Neil's sense of melancholy-with-jauntiness that's in a few of Neil's songs but especially this one. In a microcosm of the album this track's catchy strummed ba-da-da-da-da-dum-dee-da opening riff, in-tune harmonica, open words about being a miner and mining not gold but love, how could this song possibly fail in 1972? Then again, with its lack of Neil's usual depth, invention or seriousness (there are only two very repetitive verses) how could this song still be a 100% fan favourite fifty years later, even if this is for many fans the point where they came in. 'Heart Of Gold' represents everything that later, more heartfelt Neil Young albums teach you to despise - and yet there's also a place in music for songs that are light and catchy. Inoffensive and cute, 'Heart Of Gold' deserves its success, but you wish Neil had maybe mined for that success a little harder and thrown a middle eight in at least. Legend has it that Bob Dylan heard this song on the radio and rang Neil up to tell him to stop nicking his style, while Neil's own dad heard it on the radio and didn't recognise his son (because Neil's songs were never on the radio back then); by contrast 'Heart Of Gold' got replaced at the US number one slot by America's 'A Horse With No Name', a song they admitted was written to sound a bit like Neil. Perhaps feeling upset about what happened last time, Scott phoned his son up to tell him 'his' new record was sensational and the best he'd ever done, to which a sheepish Neil had to reply that it had nothing to do with him!
'Are You Ready For The Country?' seems like it makes some sense now we've had full-on Neil Young country albums like 'Old Ways' (a record Neil made twice) and Neil helped co-found 'Farm Aid' to help struggling American farmers: half-hearing suggests this is another of Neil's 'life in the country is better than the city' songs which he's been writing since his first album in 1968 and which fits the period of him buying his ranch. But a closer look at the lyric suggests a more complex song than that. The title, for starters, isn't a piece of celebration but a threat: the country's going to get us all, so watch out! The lyrics too take the usual country clichés (playing dominoes backstage and a preacher and hangman fighting for Neil's soul) and subvert them: the country doesn't sound a happy place but somewhere everyone seems out to get you. As we know now, Neil must have the most inconsistent political view of any musician: liberal in the hippie phase (and a member of CSNY, the most hippie band on the planet), conservative and pro-Reagan in the 1980s, back to Bush-bashing liberal in the 2000s and goodness only knows what since, Neil's been everywhere and taken flak from extremists of both sides for his views. By 1972 Neil is already on the defensive, telling us 'lefting and righting is not a crime you know'. In context, though, it sounds more like a battle between music genres than politics. Back in 1972, when country-rock was something only The Flying Burrito Brothers and Mike Nesmith did (not superstars like Shania Twain), you were either on one side or the other or ostracised by both. Neil had a lot more in common with country music than rock (the sense of 'family' and traditional values, while most country stars tend to be 'loners' while rockers form bands together) and must have felt it more than ever when he became a country ranch-owner himself. Meeting pedal steel player Ben Keith at just this time and Neil's frustration with the rock movement (he famously became the only person at Woodstock to hate Woodstock) all seem to combine together in this track which says 'I'm a country lover, ok? Happy now?! You should be too!' Without knowing it (Neil recorded this in the middle of 1971 remember), he's accidentally hit a nerve: suddenly in 1972 country music is more popular with rock fans. However, Neil being Neil, he doesn't deliver his message about the greatness of country music in a country setting but in a blues-rock one that just happens to start with a famous rock couplet ('Slippin' and Slidin'). Obscure and moody, while given a rather thrown-away and messy performance (which even has a false start left intact the beginning), 'Country' is a hard song to relate to whatever side your tastes lie and remains a rather odd and clunky song in the Neil Young catalogue. Crosby and Nash guest on this track, though they're painfully mis-cast (Stills' voice suits country music better - many of his Manassas songs later in the year will sound like this, only better). Country star Waylon Jennings covered this song in 1976, seven years before working with Neil on 'Old Ways'.
'Old Man', on the other-hand, is stuffed with meaning. Ranch-hand Louis Avila and his wife Clara weren't quite sure what to make of their new owner when Neil Young drove up for a first meeting. Wanting to see the property, Neil and Louis went for a drive and took a rest by a lake at the edge of the property. 'Something's bugging me' Louis announced after they stopped, 'How come a young guy like you gets to make enough money to buy a place like this?' Other rockstars would have boasted, hummed a few bars or named some number one records. 'I got lucky, Lou' was the best Neil could manage. 'Well, that's the darnedest thing I ever heard!' Louis said, returning to their jeep. 'Old Man' sounds like Neil's reply to that question which seemed to linger in his thoughts long after he'd gone home and realised he'd fallen in love with his new home. Neil must have felt pigeon-holed in as some arrogant upstart from the rock world who wanted to destroy the way of living the ranch represented; actually after a truly turbulent time in his life and a growing resentment of the rock way of life, Neil longed for the quietness of the country and the safety of tradition. 'Old Man' sounds like Neil's plea to his new workmate that they're on the same side: that the younger man is 'a lot like you'. Sensing that Louis and Clara's quiet love was exactly the stability he himself is searching for, Neil cries 'I need somebody to love me the whole day through!' That's the chorus anyway: the cleverness of this song is that Neil distances himself during the verses: perhaps realising that's he's being too open Neil discusses his 'real' reason for being there (his failed marriage) with the clinical overtones of a doctor ('Love lost, such a cost, give me things that don't get lost...') A second verse (like many songs on this album there are only two) is defensive: why, Neil wonders, is he even writing this song? ('It doesn't mean that much to me to mean that much to you!') Neil's final point, though, is that age is just a number and life is transitory: it's what you've learnt from it and taken on board that really counts. Though the younger man by several decades, Neil doesn't feel that, well, young. Odd, though, that Neil should sing of being '24 (and there's so much more)' - that would date this song to 1969; Neil moved into the ranch at twenty-five and released this song at twenty-seven (was the number four easier to rhyme?) A lovely idea and a clever lyric is given the added treat of an equally intelligent melody, one that manages to both hang back sounding sullen and desperate to spill the beans to anyone who'll listen. James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt guest for a second time and their voices add much to the magnificence of the song, as does Ben Keith's double work on banjo and pedal steel. Big of heart and of head, 'Old Man' is specific enough to be from the heart and general enough for much of Neil's generation-gap suffering fanbase to identify with (even Neil's own dad assumed the song was written for him). It remains one of his all-time greatest achievements, unlucky to stall just outside the top thirty as the sequel to the inferior 'Heart Of Gold'.
'There's A World' is often dismissed as one of the album's weakest songs - it's certainly the weakest recording with a ridiculously melodramatic string arrangement that, unlike 'A Man Needs A Maid', doesn't fit the song's concept in the slightest. Given some of the clunky rhymes ('living in' and 'wind', 'part' and 'blow hard') and the generally ethereal feeling of the track (easily Neil's weakest sorts of songs) I'd long agreed. But the solo piano version on 'Live At Massey Hall' (released in 2007) was a revelation: the song's sweet melody (which was draped in so much finery it was hard to hear is fragile and beautiful; the lyric (equally hard to keep track of covered with glissando harps) is bonkers but with a certain internal logic. It's an early example of Neil's 'mother Earth' lyrics: though this world Neil sings of starts off as a fantasy and exotic place, it's actually our world he's singing about. And if it's ours and it's real, why don't we take better care of it instead of waiting for a fairytale hero to save us? Neil can't quite put his finger on what he means but he 'feels' there's something more to life and asks us if we've felt it too. He feels it whenever he's surrounded by nature, 'walking down the avenue' but goes on to claim to feel it in 'mountains' and 'cities' too, so this isn't a pure country v city song. Neil also bookends the song with the same verse, in which he tells us that we're all cogs in the same wheel, 'God's children' and we all matter: the fate of the earth and how we treat it seems to be tied up with our self-esteem as a species. That's a lot to fit into a song and perhaps the melody of this track is a little too simplistic to contain it all (like many songs on this album, a middle eight or an instrumental or something that comes along to be a little different to the rest wouldn't have gone amiss too). However, it's the overblown arrangement that's by far the main thing about this song that doesn't work: take the strings away and 'There's A World', while no classic, is far from the poorest thing here.
'Alabama' is an oddly constructed and often criticised song too. A rant against ancient injustices and prejudices, it's a sequel to the already controversial 'Southern Man' and which damns a whole town for the actions of a few (which is, perhaps, a little more fair than blaming half a continent as before). 'Swing low, Alabama' Neil almost cackles as he imagined the lynching mobs of the past getting revenge ('See the white folks tied up in old ropes') and commenting on how the guilt over actions in the state still resonate now even this many years on. Neil urges Alabama to reform, that they have a 'wheel in the ditch and a wheel in the track', about to topple either way. Lynyrd Skynyrd, then still an unknown band from Alabama, hated this song and wrote 'Sweet Home Alabama' in protest complete with the line 'I hope Neil Young will remember a Southern Man don't need him anyhow'. Neil later commented that this is one of the few lyrics he ever regretted and rather sweetly began segueing the two songs together when playing this song in concert. However at least he has the good taste to add a final verse where he admits that the reason he's so cross is because he's made friends there and that he'd like to 'shake the hands' of those in the state brave enough to right past wrongs and support the mingling of races. 'Alabama' is at least more tasteful than 'Southern Man' and a lot less whiney. The song also contains a classic couplet so obvious it's a wonder no one else had used it before: 'I see all this ruin - what are you doing?!' Though often counted as the 'heaviest' and most 'electric' song on the album, actually 'Alabama' isn't that different from the rest of the album and just features more band and less orchestra. It's certainly not as 'heavy' as, say, anything from Crazy Horse or 'Southern Man' itself. But that's kind of what the song is about any: illusion and things being what they're not. A tougher, feistier performance would have helped this rather laidback (compared to past Young recordings, if not the rest of this album) song too. Anyone whose ever wondered what CSNY might sound like without Nash can listen to this song which features C and S as guest vocalists (though, unusually, Stills is mixed very low and Crosby very high).
For years I'd assumed 'The Needle and The Damage Done' was a late addition to the album, recorded in the aftermath of Danny Whitten's overdose (it was in fact a 'Harvest' session he was sent home from after failing to get it together enough to play what Neil wanted - the singer gave his old friend money for a flight home and instead Danny spent it on the fix that killed him). Actually it's a much earlier song, performed live across 1971 and indeed the version that made the album is a live cut taped as early as January that year at the UCLA (University of California) and thus a good year older than most of 'Harvest'). This prescient bit of fortune-telling may still have been inspired by Danny though: the guitarist was really struggling past 1969 and 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' and Neil must have recognised his hardships, mentioning 'losing his band' and being forced to go solo. Neil even name-checks a venue where Crazy Horse often played, the 'Cellar Door' (in Washington), with a pusher knocking on the door to be let in. However, unlike the personal songs on 'Tonight's The Night' to come, this is a more general song about loss and unfulfilled talent. Indeed, more than that, Neil sees 'a little part of it in everyone' - using the drug needle as a metaphor for the self-destruction common to the human spirit. It's hard not to connect with the despair in Neil's voice as he sighs that 'every junkie's like a setting sun', a black hole where once there was a person brimming with creativity and life. You could argue that 'Needle' is one of Neil's more over-rated songs simply because there's so little here and 'Needle' sounds unfinished. Like many songs on 'Harvest' it's one verse and no chorus and a highly repetitive verse at that, too short to have the emotional power of, say, a 'Tired Eyes' or a 'World On A String'. To some extent though perhaps that's what makes this song work to the extent that it does: Neil could hardly write a trippy complex multi-layered song about drugs sapping spirit and talent away. It's rather chilling barebones directness tells the story without layering pity or pointing the finger of blame, it's just a sad story about a sad state of affairs that will always exist as long as drugs do. Many people assume that Neil was a big drug taker, simpler because CSN and indeed most of his peers were and it would be wrong to say that Neil didn't take anything. However Neil's epilepsy and his fear of seizures meant that he never enjoyed the same world-shattering revelations his fellow musicians received on drugs, which gives him a whole new understanding of the subject others perhaps didn't have. Instead Neil sees drugs as life-changing in all the worst possible ways, allowing people to have new visions perhaps but preventing them from having the ability to write them down. A big backlash against drugs is about to arrive in the 1970s, but 'Needle' is - not for the last time on a Young album - way ahead of the tide of feeling that will view drugs with more and more suspicion across the rest of the decade (until we reach the 1980s and drugs change form; the acid brigade needed someone to write a 'pills and the damage done' to match this song).
As 'Needle' dies away mid-note and mid-applause we get a slap in the chops from the angry snarling riff of 'Words (Between The Lines Of Age)', one of Neil's most stodgy rockers and given the sequencing a comment on how drugs sap your creative growth. The opening verse is, after all, as vague as it gets: 'Someone and someone were down by the pond, looking for something to plant in the lawn...' Like 'Trip To Tulsa', the rest of the song becomes Dylanesque gibberish which might mean everything but could mean nothing but at least this song is rescued to some extent by some lovely Stills/Nash harmonies and this album's first bona fide chorus since 'Heart Of Gold' seven tracks earlier. Given the song's subtitle it seems as if Neil is visiting his past lives working the fields and boiling water, working as a car salesman and ultimately a King in a castle. What's the link between the three characters though? Seemingly nothing, though the car salesman wonders whether his mind is his own 'in a dream' (and perhaps whether he's lived before). Or given the song's title perhaps it's the different ways they communicate with that links them: The King keeps his peasants in line with rhyme, the salesman earns his living by his sales technique, but then the farmer doesn't need any words to boil water. Over and again across nearly seven tiring minutes Neil seems to be reaching a conclusion but then breaks off, leaving the song to return from what it's learnt back to the same familiar chugging riff as we're back at the beginning again. Is this the human spirit finding new paths and characters to follow? Or is it simply Neil trying to build a nonsense song out of fragments? 'Words' feels like it should be leading us somewhere but, perhaps again reflecting the generally lost tone of the whole album, we never quite get there: answers are always just out of reach. Ultimately 'Words' is perhaps best seen as a 'clue' to the anti-commercial backlash that Neil is going to unleash starting from this point onwards as he deliberately messes with people's expectations of his music and pushes his fan's patience to their limits. For instance, his very next album (the rambling double album soundtrack to the equally rambling film 'Journey Through The Past') features a whole 16:30 version of 'Words' which takes up the whole of side three. Though much tougher and - briefly - more exciting than this condensed version it lacks the harmonies and feels even more meandering.
Between the lines of the other songs, though, 'Harvest' does much of what it needed to do - in fact more than enough in purely commercial terms even if artistically 'Harvest' feels like the runt of the Neil Young 1970s litter. A successful harvest, in a businessman's eyes at least, but 'Harvest' is one of those 'classic' albums (like 'Sgt Peppers' or 'Pet Sounds') that's classic for its time, rather than timeless. After all, 'Harvests' go stale and rotten if left for too long past the point of collection. Funnily enough Neil seems to have even sensed this: his initial pitch to Reprise's marketing department was that they should make the album cover out of a bio-degradable material that would dissolve and rot over time once the shrink-wrap around the vinyl had been cut away. Not wanting to upset their new favourite money-spinning artist, Reprise even looked into how this might be achieved but baulked at the cost and told Neil it was a nice idea that wasn't viable (they'd have most likely been in big trouble a few months down the line when every copy started rotting and nobody had been told; while a core of us would simply have chuckled and said 'very Neil', most general music fans wouldn't have been so accommodating). This record is the one that put Neil in the 'middle of the road' and answered for many fans what a more commercially-minded, deeply successful Neil Young record might sound like after years of relatively poor sellers and cult status. However you can tell even before the record was released that being in the middle of the road is something of a bore for Neil. Next stop: the ditch (as Neil puts it in his sleevenotes for his 1977 compilation 'Decade', 'A rougher ride, but I saw some far more interesting people there').
Think 'Harvest' is the only album Neil ever made? Think again! Here are lots of the others that have been reviewed on this site already!