Released in February 1972 on Reprise Records, Harvest was the 4th studio album by Canadian/American musician Neil Young. It was going to spawn two hit singles – Old Man and Heart of Gold – which reached No. 31 and No. 1 respectively on the Billboard Hot 100. It was also going to become the biggest selling album in the United States in 1972.
Like all milestones, Harvest has been analysed and dissected in order to understand the secret of a spell that never ceases to fascinate almost 50 years after its creation. Its strong melodies and sound solutions of unparalleled simplicity contribute to make it a country-rock gem.
An apparent serenity
After the members of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young went their separate ways in 1970, Young recruited a group of country session musicians to record Harvest.
Country-rock was gaining more and more acclaim after the revolutionary Sweetheart of the Rodeo by The Byrds. As a tribute, the Canadian musician decided to record part of the album in Nashville.
The country-rock synthesis was also achieved through the collaboration with noted guests such as David Crosby, Graham Nash, Linda Ronstadt and Stephen Stills. As opposed to the country-rock lilt, songs as A Man Needs a Maid and There’s a World represent the album two deviations into orchestral arrangements. They were recorded by classical arranger Jack Nitzsche together with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Since his Buffalo Springfield days, Young had mastered a very distinctive folk vein, characterized by fingerpicking, his fragile voice and introspective lyrics.
Harvest is the expression of a serene and inspired Neil Young, also embodying the solitude, the search for oneself and one’s dreams in the great open spaces of the American tradition.
The apparent serenity of the album reflects the hopes of the baby-boomers generation after Woodstock. The shadow of the future is, however, well present: some tracks clearly express the personal neuroses of the author. They also become gloomy hints of the growing disillusionment of changing times. Disillusionment culminates in the two pieces that conclude the work – The Needle and the Damage Done and Words (Between the Lines of Age).
A self- referential thread
Assessments by critics were not always enthusiastic at the time. Rolling Stone’s John Mendelsohn called the album a disappointing retread of earlier efforts by Young:
The discomfortingly unmistakable resemblance of nearly every song on this album to an earlier Young composition – it’s as if he just added a steel guitar and new words to After the Gold Rush.
In many of the songs the Canadian songwriter returns to his usual themes. Out on the Weekend is the track that opens the album. It is about the escape from the alienation of the city towards the open spaces of the American landscape. Harvest, the title track, is a country-rock love song based on the piano and on introspective lyrics:
Will I see you give more than I can take? Will I only harvest some? As the days fly past /will we lose our grasp /Or fuse it in the sun?
With its heavy orchestral insert, A Man Needs a Maid is also famous for its controversial and allegedly misogynistic lyrics. It is followed by Heart of Gold and Old Man, two classic country ballads that later became hit singles.
The tone changes towards the end of the album. With its depiction of the American South, Alabama brushes up on the anti-racist themes the author had already dealt with in songs such as Southern Man. The solo acoustic number The Needle and the Damage Done is also a depiction of the fallen hippie dream.
The eschewing of innovation
Although its detractors may be right in saying that there is nothing new in Harvest, the album is a country-rock gem to this day. And perhaps part of the reason why it still sounds evergreen is rooted in its eschewing of stylistic, lyrical or sonic innovation.
The next steps for Neil Young would be those of the “Cursed Trilogy” – as Time Fades Away, On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night are known – which will then lead him to the solar Zuma and to the return with Crazy Horse.
You can find the album Harvest on Spotify.