[14 December 2009]
Worshipping Neil Young can be exhausting. Trust me: I’d know.
True, the singer’s notoriously impulsive nature has always been an endearing trait. (As manager Elliot Roberts puts it: “If he watches TV on the road and there’s a CNN special on Bosnia, Neil wants do a record and a benefit within two days.”) But it has also manifested itself in the form of a monstrously intimidating discography—30-something studio albums, a dozen more live releases, sharp veers to the left ranging from straight-faced rockabilly (1983’s hilarious yet misunderstood Everybody’s Rocking) to a semi-coherent rock opera about… well, what the hell is Greendale about?
For me, that’s where obsessive list-making comes in—a way to forge order from chaos. The High Fidelity mentality, I suppose. There’s the obvious Best Overall Neil Records list (for my money, Tonight’s the Night, closely followed by Rust Never Sleeps, closely followed by After the Gold Rush, closely followed by…), and then there’s the Best Live Records list. A Best Noisy Efforts list, a Best Neil Solo list, Best of Each Decade…
And then, inevitably, there’s the Most Underrated Neil Young Albums list. 1982’s Trans comes to mind, its cold electronic exterior belying the twisted yet honest pop record lurking beneath. So does Living with War, its no-nonsense bluntness (both lyrically and musically) enhancing rather than detracting from its impact. But more than any other, I point to 1992’s Harvest Moon.
It’s easy to miss in the Shakey catalogue, I concede. Its country overtones and earthy, unplugged palette—acoustic guitars, pedal steel, banjo, harmonica, female backing vocals—barely distinguish it from a dozen others from the years. Admittedly, its unflinching mellowness could be construed as overly reactionary in the wake of 1991’s blistering Ragged Glory tour (see: Weld). And yet, there’s just something about the songwriting—its quiet reflection and gorgeous nostalgia—that gets me absolutely every time. I won’t shy away from hyperbole: Harvest Moon is the forgotten masterpiece in the Neil Young discography.
I guess that’s what makes Dreamin’ Man Live ‘92—the fourth, if you’re keeping track, in Neil’s single-disc live archival series—seem so pointless. This is no single performance à la Live at Canterbury House 1968. Nothing with as much historical value as Canterbury House or Live at the Fillmore East, either. Rather, Dreamin’ Man compiles the entirety of Harvest Moon from multiple 1992 dates and shuffles the song order. Really, it’s all here—alternate takes on the album’s aching nostalgia (“One of These Days”), hopeless romanticism (“Harvest Moon”), and reflective acceptance (“Dreamin’ Man”), nothing more or less. Even rare cuts like canine tribute “Old King” are accounted for.
Problem is, the track order is the only major variation; these performances, though stripped down and sans backing vocals, are far too similar to the album itself to warrant re-release. In most cases, that’s not too severe a complaint: this is a wonderful, intimate recording of some of Neil’s most gorgeous and underappreciated tracks. But if I wanted to hear Harvest Moon, wouldn’t I simply listen to… y’know, Harvest Moon? Why not do as 1993’s Unplugged does and supplement the album tracks with some of the rarities that popped up during the 1992 tour?
Ultimately, I can’t help but view this release as a missed opportunity, its appeal consigned primarily to diehards and completists. No judgment there—I’m guilty, too. But if it’s an incentive for the casual fans to explore (or revisit) the wonderful studio album itself—well, I suppose it’s served a purpose.