Harvest is an album of Americana personified by Neil Young. It is where rock and roll goes to Nashville (literally), with simple and tight rhythms and subtle acoustic guitars are flavored by distant steel guitars and harmonica all under clearly vocalized lyrics about the simple struggles of life. This was the fourth studio album by the Canadian native and included a rich list of contemporary musicians who provided cameos on the album. It was Young’s most successful album commercially, becoming the best selling album of 1972 in the US.
After his brief stint with the super group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Young recruited a group of country session musicians, whom he would name “The Stray Gators”. These included pedal steel player Ben Keith, bassist Tim Drummand and drummer Kenny Buttrey, all of whom would reunite for Harvest Moon, 20 years later in 1992. In contrast to this “Nashville” sound, Harvest also includes two tracks featuring the London Symphony Orchestra and were produced and arranged by Jack Nitzsche.
The project began in February 1971 when Young traveled to Nashville to appear on the Johnny Cash television show. He was approached by producer Elliot Mazer, who had just opened Quadrofonic Sound Studios and wanted him to record at the studio. Being a fan of the Nashville studio musicians known as “Area Code 615”, Young made the decision to start recording that very evening. As it turns out, most of those musicians had gigs that night (it was a Saturday), Mazer had to “scrape up” the three players who would become the “Stray Gators”. Young re-recorded some of the new material he had used the previous month on a live recording at UCLA in California. Although it got off to a quick start, the album would not be completed and released for over a year due to a back injury that Young suffered.
Harvest by Neil Young
|Released: February 14, 1972 (Reprise)
Produced by: Neil Young, Elliot Mazer, Henry Lewy, & Jack Nitzsche
Recorded: Quadraphonic Studios, Nashville, January–September 1971
|Side One||Side Two|
|Out On the Weekend
A Man Needs a Maid
Heart of Gold
Are You Ready for the Country?
There’s a World
The Needle and the Damage Done
Words (Between the Lines of Age)
|Neil Young – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Piano, Harmonica
Jack Nitzsche – Piano, Guitar, Orchestration
Ben Keith – Pedal Steel
Tim Drummand – Bass
Kenny Buttrey – Drums
The simple rhythm of “Out On the Weekend” grabs you from the beginning with Drummand’s bass guitar and Buttrey’s kick drum locked in perfect time. This mellow country two-step is followed by the even more gentle country waltz Of the title song. Harvest brings you onto the farm with a great melody by Young, who offers uplifting lyrics in a portrait of vulnerability and sincerity.
The two Nitzsche produced orchestral tracks may try a bit too hard to contrast with authentic Nashville sound. “A Man Needs a Maid” sounds authentic enough at first with just piano and vocals but soon morphs into an overblown orchestral section which strays far from the theme of simplicity. Lyrically, the song contrasts the fears of committing to a relationship with simply living alone and hiring help. “There’s a World” is not quite as deep and drifts far too much towards the Moody Blues on Days of Future Passed, trying to be dramatic and operatic.
The song “Heart of Gold” was released a month before the album and would go on to top the charts. It is pure pop with country flavoring and just a dash of Dylan with the ever-present harmonica, a sound which did very well in 1972. The song features backup vocals by James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, who were also doing the Johnny Cash show the same night as Young, and agreed to come to the studio to “help out”. Taylor and Ronstadt also provide vocals for “Old Man”, the most philosophical and musically deep song on the album. Taylor further provides banjo on this song which Young wrote about an aging caretaker of a ranch Young acquired in the early 1970s. The song is both haunting and poignant, as the 24-year-old sees some of the same needs and desires he has in the old one.
Young also wrote a handful of electric guitar based tunes for the album, while maintaining the same basic rhythm section. “Are You Ready for the Country?” starts with boogie piano introduction by Young and morphs into a loose jam with good slide guitar to end the first side. “Alabama” is a sequel to “‘Southern Man” from Young’s 1970 album After the Gold Rush. It contains some harmonies from ex-band mates David Crosby and Stephen Stills and is probably the hardest rocking song on the album musically. Lyrically, it tackles the history of prejudice in the state and sparked an answer by Lynard Skynard in the song “Sweet Home Alabama”, who address Neil Young directly in that songs lyric.
“The Needle and the Damage Done” is the only live recording and the most haunting song on the album, with lyrics that speak of a friend’s descent into heroin addiction. Young said of the song;
“I am not a preacher, but drugs killed a lot of great men…”
Unfortunately the mood of the subtle “Needle” is abruptly broken by the weak mixing into the album’s closer “Words (Between the Lines of Age)”. This song features a lengthy guitar workout with the band with multiple improvised solos and alternating time signatures between standard 4/4 and the more unusual 11/8 for interludes.
The mood on Harvest is melancholic with songs that describe the longing for new love. The success of the album was met by Young with extreme mixed feelings, who was never one to play the role of “pop star”. Whether by design or by fate, Young never again quite hit the commercial success of this 1972 album, although he certainly put out several more quality works.
Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1972 albums.