Monday, October 31, 2011

Classic Albums: Neil Young's Harvest

[Editor's Note: With the added stresses of starting a new job and all of the heavy work that entails, I have not been blogging all that faithfully. I think starting a new series on one of my favorite topics to kibbitz about, rock music albums, ought to make it easier for more to find engaging things to write about.]

I'd like to start my new series of essays on classic albums with Neil Young's 1972 record Harvest not because it's one his best (it's not), but because it provides such fertile ground for analysis (pun totally intended.) Harvest was by far Young's biggest seller, spawning his only #1 single, "Heart of Gold," and "Old Man," which still gets airplay on classic rock radio. This album also happens to be the first by Young that I ever owned, and that began a long-standing love of his work on my part. (I still remember getting it on CD for Christmas in 1992, and consequently, many of my memories of that winter come rushing back to me whenever I hear it.) In many ways it was the perfect Young album to start with, since his songs tend towards the adolescent emotions of heartache and loneliness, things I was feeling very acutely at the time.

Despite all that history and its classic status, I find it to be highly flawed. Some of the songs just aren't that good, for starters. The orchestral accompaniments on "A Man Needs a Maid" and "There's a World" are overbearing and bombastic, drowning the small, personal gestures of the songs in an avalanche of symphonic goop. "Words (Between the Lines of Age)" lurches like a drunken elephant, and "Are You Ready for the Country" is about as stiff and wooden as Al Gore circa 1993. Worst of all, "Alabama" is a less interesting version of "Southern Man" from 1970's After the Gold Rush.

The biggest sin of the album from our contemporary standpoint is something that you really can't blame Young for, namely how it fits the template for the soft folk rock of the 1970s, a genre responsible for the likes of Bread and America. Whenever I troll through the bargain bins at used record stores, this genre of music is very well represented. Popular in its time, it has not received the kind of revival that has made old garage rock LPs scarce commodities. You can't blame the man because the good tracks blow those of his competitors out of the water.

Case in point: "Old Man." Hearing this song on classic rock radio made me want to listen to the whole album; it captures that uncertain feeling of being trapped on the borderline between childhood and adulthood and the crazily desperate adolescent longing for love. It also features the heart-stirring steel guitar of Ben Keith, the kind of touch rarely found on a Dan Fogelberg record. That mournful country glow is present on "Harvest," another stellar track of heartbreaking beauty, and "Out on the Weekend," one of the best songs about starting over ever written.

Keith was one of the Stray Gators, the moniker for backing band on this record. These guys were Nashville pros a little too scruffy for Music City's crew-cutted establishment in the pre-outlaw country days. The best tracks on Harvest betray their impeccable sense of feel, something that has a lot more to do with what makes a great recording than pure virtuosity and flash. (Listen to any track from Motown's golden years to know what I am talking about. The Funk Brothers, like the best Nashville players, knew how to keep their prodigious musical abilities locked tight into the needs of the song.)

And yet what may be the best song on the album is not with the Gators, but a live recording of Young solo on his guitar: "The Needle and the Damage Done." Unlike many of his peers, Young was quick to see the dark side of the hippie ethos of drug taking as mind expansion, and he confronts it head-on in this song about the ravages of heroin addiction. The line "every junky's like a setting sun" has always stuck with me. He wrote it around the time his friend Danny Whitten was being slowly killed by the needle; the anguish in his voice is real. How many songs start off with a line so ominous as "I caught you knocking at my cellar door." The way that the song ends with a burst of applause that is suddenly cut off only adds to the dread.

I wonder how the average music consumer who bought this record back in 1972 (it was the top seller that year) reacted when they heard that song. After all, they probably bought Harvest after hearing the smash-hit "Heart of Gold." That song managed, in one shining moment, to wed the Stray Gators' hippie country vibe with Young's lovelorn lyrics and the kind of catchy melody one normally associates with the likes Paul McCartney. As that extra little bit of cream on top, James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt sang the high, soaring backing vocals. Never before and never again would Neil Young ever write such a Top 40-friendly song. He would famously say that after spending some time in the middle of the road, he decided to drive into the ditch. (I wrote about his Ditch Trilogy awhile back.) Re-listening to Harvest, I don't think he actually went all that far into the middle of the road in 1972. The songs are uniformly melancholy, and even "Heart of Gold" is shot through with loneliness.

What made such a collection of depressive songs about being sent to Vietnam ("Are You Ready for the Country"), heroin addiction ("The Needle and the Damage Done"), racism ("Alabama"), and divorce ("Out on the Weekend") palatable to the mainstream was their presentation. This is especially the case with "Heart of Gold" and the two orchestral pieces. A couple of years ago Young released a recording of a show from 1971 when these songs were being written that did a much better job of showcasing their raw, confessional emotion. "There's a World" goes from being an overwrought clunker to a spooky, introspective number. "A Man Needs a Maid" is drained of its hokiness and becomes a harrowing, soul-baring account of the inability to love. (A BBC version from the time also demonstrates what I'm talking about.) The Neil Young responsible for harrowing ballads of wasted oblivion along the lines of "Tonight's the Night" actually isn't all that far off here.

So Harvest isn't a perfect record or the foray into the mainstream it's been made out to be. It is really good to listen to on a cold, dark autumn night when harvest has come and the fields are ground down to stubble. Give it whirl before its window of optimal power closes and you have to wait until next year.

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