Neil Young always had a knack for sounding older than he really was, where even in his twenties he was writing songs concerned with the sorts of subject matter most people tend not to think about until they’re well into their sixties (well, most people I guess). But then if Lord Byron was correct in suggesting that by the age of twenty-one the best if life is over, then Neil was obviously onto something. So much so that when Harvest hit the stores and airways in 1972 it became his biggest selling album to date, shifting millions of copies and thus in the process turning this melancholic folkie into a household name. For me, listening to this record, and I do mean record, is like sitting in front of an open fire, with all its flawed and uneven heat, providing a bucolic and wistful ambience, whose songs seem equally balanced between hope and heartache.
“Out on the Weekend” is a fine opener and helps define the mood of the LP from here on. The instrumental backing is sparse and simple, with Ben Keith (steel guitar), Tim Drummond (bass) and Kenny Buttrey (drums) providing support, as the Diazepam rhythm section behind Neil’s own languid strumming and vocals. When some critics describe this album as being one of Young’s most commercial, I don’t buy it. Because what I’m hearing at the moment is anything but commercial. The same applies with the title track, “Harvest”, another dreamy just-got-out-of-bed number which normally would bore me to tears yet somehow Neil manages to hold my attention. The dramatic “A Man Needs A Maid”, with its seemingly overblown cinematic arrangement courtesy of Jack Nitzsche, is another superb composition, and an example of Young’s willingness to experiment.
“Heart of Gold” is obviously the song, and the one which everybody knows. It was also the tune which unwittingly (at the time) put Young on the map as a major singer-songwriter, regardless of whatever he had done before, even with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills and Nash. That such a simple and reflective piece should resonate amongst the masses is proof that often less is more. Not so “Are You Ready for the Country,” a charming little number which resembles a drunken Eric Clapton outtake circa the early ‘70’s, but one which seems right at home in my living room.
We change sides, the record crackles, and we have the second most famous song Neil is known for, the classic and maudlin “Old Man,” a tune fraught with intense pathos and sentiment. And when he sings the lines “Old man take a look at my life/I’m a lot like you/I need someone to love me/The whole day through,” Young was unwittingly speaking for a whole generation. Perhaps not so on “There’s a World,” where things get all cinematic again, thanks to Nitzsche’s less than subtle string arrangements. It makes for a contrast I must say, after the acoustic simplicity of the previous track. Neil’s vocals are also a tad out of tune, so the whole experience is not only strange, but quite surreal.
The mood improves on the rocking “Alabama,” where Stephen Stills and David Crosby provide backing vocals, which means we’re back in business; at least as far as CSNY fans are concerned. The song is reminiscent of the great “Ohio,” and speaking of great songs, “The Needle and the Damage Done” is one of Neil’s finest compositions, and a poignant reflection on the harm hard drugs can do. When he sings “I’ve seen the needle/And the damage done/A little part of it in everyone/But every junkie’s like setting sun” the observation in his voice is as pertinent as it is powerful.
Final track “Words (Between the Lines of Age)” is another ragged rocker with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash behind Young on vocals, as if to reassure the listener that he hadn’t entirely moved on from his folk-rock roots.
Just as nowadays many people have a copy of Taylor Swift in their collection, back in the early ‘70s Harvest was the album to own, along with Tapestry and Tubular Bells. And while much of the music Young was creating at this time was based on traditional country ditties, it spoke to people in a way few folk-rock albums ever could, since Harvest had humanity dripping all over it. It still has. A raw and honest statement from a man who always sang things the way he felt them. No pretence and no bullshit. Commercial success is not a disease, nor does it in any way translate into selling out. It simply means that Young was beginning to find himself as an artist.