While Neil Young has garnered his most recent headlines due to pulling his music from Spotify his most widely acclaimed album has turned fifty with little fanfare. Its predecessor ‘After The Gold Rush’, which we reviewed just a year ago as another Classic, received a muted response on release, but ‘Harvest’ was welcomed with wider open arms. Following on from our consideration of ‘After The Gold Rush’ we look into what marks ‘Harvest’ out from its predecessor, how Young was able to craft two classics back-to-back and how this experience caused his future direction to shift.
While ‘After The Gold Rush’ had not been received with the near universal praise it would later accumulate, it had succeeded in bringing Neil Young to a wider audience. As part of this new popularity he was invited to Nashville to appear on the Johnny Cash Show. While there he checked in with producer Elliot Mazer and was invited to come to Mazer’s Quadrafonic Sound Studio and cut some tracks. Gathering together a trio of Nashville session players at short notice, Young also brought in long term collaborator James Taylor as well as Linda Ronstadt, both of whom were also guests for the recording of the Johnny Cash Show. This small team laid down the foundations of several tracks including the bones of ‘Old Man’ and ‘Heart of Gold’. From there Young would add two tracks featuring the London Symphony Orchestra while on another trip for a scheduled TV appearance, this time on the BBC. More tracks were then laid down in Nashville at Quadrafonic before he retired to his California ranch to lay down final tracks, while also dubbing the remaining quartet of Jack Nitzsche and the Nashville players Buttrey, Drummond and Keith, ‘The Stray Gators’.
In many ways the recording of ‘Harvest’ was relatively free and easy, predominantly featuring new session players and recorded in a matter of days spread across a few months and based on material Young had already begun to trial in a live setting. Mixing was carried out at Young’s ranch and this spawned a much retold story of the time. Graham Nash was visiting the ranch in the summer of ‘71 when he was asked by Young if he wanted to hear his new album. Young proceeded to take Nash out in a rowing boat on a small lake where Nash expected to be given a tape recording and headphones. Instead, he discovered Young and Mazer were using the PA system in Young’s barn, where the band had been recording, as the “speaker” on one side and an enormous sound system set up in Young’s house as the other channel. When asked about his feelings on the stereo mix, Young is quoted as having yelled, “more barn”.
The resulting album indeed has more barn. As is to be expected with an album whose origins lie in Nashville, ‘Harvest’ leans more towards Country Rock than the Folk of ‘After The Gold Rush’. Where ATGR had begun with the percussion-less folky group vocals and acoustic guitar of ‘Tell Me Why’, ‘Harvest’ begins with a slow percussive heartbeat, harmonica and a lonesome solo vocal on ‘Out On The Weekend’, a track like many here written for Young’s partner Carrie Snodgress.
The title track follows with a delicate lap steel guitar line and a straight Country ballad style before diving into ‘A Man Needs a Maid’, a beautifully melancholic track featuring solo piano and the orchestral work of the LSO. The lyrics have caused some issues as they leave room for interpretation, hinting at insecurity around diving deeply into relationships and perhaps preferring contractual dynamics yet repeatedly coming back to the intimate question, “when will I see you again?”
Next comes the album’s best known number and the track that would elevate Young to new levels. ‘Heart of Gold’ opens with chugging acoustic guitar strums before being joined by Young’s harmonica in a style that has now come to be immediately identifiable as Neil Young. His only number one hit, he would later describe the track as the one that put him “in the middle of the road” and spurred his later rougher, more edgy sounds as he “headed for the ditch”. The tracks success is testament to the position Young found himself in when creating ‘Harvest’, more settled with fewer interpersonal conflicts and with a renewed sense of creativity, unlike the writer's block he had suffered prior to composing ‘After The Gold Rush’. In this phase his songwriting came to the fore, partly through touring and partly enforced by severe back pain that prevented him from standing playing electric guitar and left him with focused time on piano and acoustic guitar.
This renewed creativity and blossoming songwriting skill is on show on ‘Old Man’, written for the caretaker of Young’s recently purchased California ranch. Reflecting both on shared commonalities and his own developing self-assurance, he spins a narrative that outwardly states that the old man was once young while also implicitly exploring his own maturation. Joined by Taylor and Ronstadt on backing vocals, Taylor also provides a wonderful secondary guitar part on six-string banjo.
Elsewhere, ‘Alabama’ is a less affecting follow up to the themes expressed on ‘After The Gold Rush’s ‘Southern Man’ and a track that Young himself retrospectively distanced himself from, finding the work to lack nuance. Nestled towards the end comes ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’, a live recording complete with audience applause that features Young solo backed only by his finger-picked acoustic guitar. A plaintive address to the heroin addiction he saw in a number of friends, it is the most unflinching piece on ‘Harvest’.
We previously described ‘After The Gold Rush’ as being Neil Young in transition, “featuring a mix of styles, ‘After The Gold Rush’ shows Young in an unsettled phase, playing out Folk-Rock numbers with members of CSNY, harder rocking tracks like ‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’ with Crazy Horse, and more singular tracks like the title song picked out on solo piano.” That it stemmed from abandoned projects and writer’s block and the way Young captures these tensions in its tracks are part of what make it a classic. On the other hand, ‘Harvest’ came from a fruitful period where Young was able to trial songs on the road, serendipitously find a backing band capable of quickly translating his ideas into fully fledged songs, and where he was finding a sense of ease or stability within his personal relationships. This, in turn, is reflected in the songs which tend to wear a sense of reflective separation and self-realisation.
From here Neil Young would soon stray from Soft Rock, expanding his horizons, working against commercial trends all while writing tracks that would contribute to his growing critical and public acclaim. Likely this stemmed as much from the personal freedom Young displayed on ‘Harvest’ as from the financial freedom it afforded him. Settled, assured and at the height of his hit song writing power, ‘Harvest’ captures Neil Young fully flexing his muscle as a solo artist for the first time.