Counterbalance No. 97: Neil Young’s ‘Harvest’

Neil Young

Klinger: Here’s an interesting tidbit that I never would have guessed: According to Billboard‘s Year-End Archives, Neil Young’s Harvest was the best-selling pop album of 1972. The album outpaced Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Elton John—even Cheech and Chong. (Tapestry, by the way, was in second place for the second year in a row. Such was the fearsome sales juggernaut that was Carole King.) Now I realize that record-keeping for album sales was a bit spotty back then, but it does give us an indication of just how huge Harvest was. Buoyed by the singles “Heart of Gold” and the only slightly less ubiquitous “Old Man”, Neil Young had finally become a major league act in his own right—and something about that spooked him good.

Young has famously said that Harvest placed him in the middle of the road, and that sent him heading back to the ditch. Having spent a ton of time with Harvest in the past few weeks, though, I really have to question just what he was so freaked out about. This album is a lot of things, but it hardly sounds like a naked grab for the mainstream. There are a lot less dignified ways to become a best-selling musician, as Rod Stewart would so amply demonstrate. Harvest still sounds a work of integrity to me. As I recall, Mendelsohn, you started to warm up to Young by the time we finished our last tangle with one of his LPs—how does Harvest hit your ears?

Mendelsohn: I was kind of dreading having to listen to more Neil Young, until I actually put the record on and the chip inside my brain activated, letting me know that, yes, I do indeed like Neil Young and that I will sit quietly and enjoy this record. All jokes about alien mind control aside, I like this record. My appreciation for Harvest comes directly from my love of the music that it helped inspire. Before this point, I was never really able to connect Neil Young with Radiohead or My Morning Jacket or some of the alt-country type acts that have slowly grown into my own personal guilty pleasure. But it’s all right there laying on the surface. Up until this point, I had just never been paying enough attention. As for why this was a huge hit in the 1970s, I can only surmise that previous generations had a much better idea of what constituted good music. I weep for the younger generation, Klinger. Tears of acid, tears of rage stream down my face every time I turn on the radio and subject myself to the mediocre, repetitive drivel that passes for music these days.

Young’s Harvest may not have been an intentional cash grab but it is by far the most accessible suite of songs he had written thus far in his career. The other thing I noticed is that his writing has become bit a more concise and cohesive. On his previous record, After the Gold Rush, there are some major swings with electric shronk to straight folk. On Harvest, there is more of an even keel, as if Young had achieved an equilibrium that had thus far been eluding him.

Klinger: Well now, that’s curious to me, because I think the narrowing of Young’s palette makes Harvest a less compelling listen than After the Gold Rush. Granted, he did bring in the London Symphony Orchestra for a couple of songs, but Jack Nitzsche’s overly lush arrangements for “A Man Needs a Maid” and (especially) “There’s a World” make them sound like they could be outtakes from the Original Cast album of South Pacific.

What makes Neil Young such a compelling songwriter (when he is in fact being a compelling songwriter) is his facility with melody. Much like Bob Dylan, Young has a voice that could be described as not conventionally attractive, so when he’s able to match that voice with effective lyrics and a compelling melody, he’s one of the best songwriters in the business. That happens less frequently here than it did on After the Gold Rush (and it seems the critics have more or less agreed).

Mendelsohn: I’m not so worried about compelling as I am about cohesive. I want a listening experience that ebbs and flows. Harvest has a much better flow than After the Gold Rush. Harvest may not have the breadth of songwriting that Young exhibited on his previous album, but I think the narrow focus was the major factor in the success of this album. Instead of having to digest Young’s unique take on melody from several angles and several genres, we get to see him showcase his melodic skill as it snowballs through the entire album before coming to a slightly psychedelic conclusion on “Words (Between the Lines of Age)”. The critics may take more of a shine to After the Gold Rush, but it was Harvestthat made Young into a bona fide star and cemented his legacy. It’s not hard to see why this album was such a hit as Young and his Stray Gators so gleefully mine the not-yet-officially-minted genre of alt-country. With the lap steel and the slide guitar in tow, Young found a way to combine the folk stylings and the electric shronk that seemed to play off so diametrically opposed on After the Gold Rush.

Klinger: Interesting—you are thinking of Harvestas the beginning of a movement, alt-country before there was such a thing, while I’ve been hearing it as the climax of that first wave of rootsy sounds that came in the wake of the Sgt. Pepper era. In my thinking (which, granted may be oversimplified and too linear—the unfortunate result of excessive exposure to VH-1 back in the 1990s), 1972 represents a sea change in rock, as wood grain and denim jackets started to give way to clear plastic and spangly unitards. Harvest, by virtue of its massive popularity and orchestral sheen, sounds like a tipping point to me. After this, L.A. rock kept getting slicker and less folksy, even as Neil started making his journey toward the ditch. Countrified rock came to mean the Eagles.

Harvest has another legacy that extends into the ’90s, when you consider the extent to which Neil Young was adopted by Pearl Jam and other alternative-flavored acts of the time. As that generation experienced its own angsty ambivalence toward success, Neil Young became a pretty suitable guru.

Mendelsohn: Context can be nearly as important as the album itself. I’m simply trying to find the right context to help me enjoy Neil Young’s work—it’s taken me this long to etch out an acceptable space and find an appreciation for his work. And as you just mentioned, a lot of that had to do with my context problem of Young being connected with certain artists in the 1990s. I had liked Pearl Jam up to a point (that point ended at Vitalogy) and I didn’t begrudge their attempts to distance themselves from fame and the industry blood suckers. But at the same time the pairing of those Seattle rockers with Young — who I viewed more as a part of Crosby, Stills and Nash as opposed to a solo artist — struck me as slightly disingenuous and weird. But then, I was 15 and tended to view everyone over the age of 25 as slightly disingenuous and weird.

Looking back at it now, it seems to make complete sense. Although, for a man who headed straight for the ditch, it seems strange that he would be anointed the anti-fame guru for a new generation, thereby making him all that more famous.

Klinger: It’s all a curious Mobius strip of irony and paradox. But yes, the level of fame Young achieve with Harvest was something of a double-edged sword. Not only did it put him in the position of having to defend himself from women who found “A Man Needs a Maid” somewhat, er, muddled in its message, but it also left him open to parody (most notably this classic 1975 example from National Lampoon) and, some years later, the wrath of irate Lynyrd Skynyrd fans, who could apparently be a bit passionate in their defense of the former Confederacy.

Don’t misunderstand my qualified response to this record, though—there’s a lot to like about Harvest, and the consistency of sound that you referred to earlier does mean that it’s the perfect album when the mood and time are just right. According to the Great List, we’ll be coming back around to Neil a couple more times in the next year, with Rust Never Sleeps and Tonight’s the Night. Have you sufficiently kicked your dread of Neil Young (a condition the Germans call akustischböhmischfurcht, by the way)?

Mendelsohn: That is a hard condition to lick (and say), Klinger. For the time being, I feel like I understand Neil Young, but the recurrence rate of akustischböhmischfurcht can be high, especially with an artist like Young because you never know just what you are going to get from album to album—although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Only time will tell, my friend.