Harvest Moon Turns 20
Despite sharing many of the themes and much of the personnel of his celebrated 1972 album Harvest, I was never sold on the idea that Neil Young’s Harvest Moon was some sort of sequel. In my mind the 1992 album (which turns 20 tomorrow), sounds more like a first entry in a trilogy that would also include 2000’s Silver And Gold, and 2005’s Prairie Wind, albums of dew-eyed, nostalgic ruminations as tender as Neil’s famed “Ditch Trilogy” was raucous.
The most Young-ian aspect of Harvest Moon‘s release was its timing. Ever the don of defiance, Neil followed 1990’s aptly titled Ragged Glory — a tube-rattling album of thick, heavy guitar jams that earned him the unfortunate epithet “Godfather Of Grunge” — with a mellow, ethereal album dealing explicitly with a middle age his new flannel-clad fans couldn’t possibly relate to. There’s a Target and a multiplex where Sugar Mountain used to stand, the Cowgirl In The Sand is married to a day trader and has college-age children, and the distance has closed considerably between Neil and the titular Old Man he sang about when he was only 27. Maybe his problems suddenly don’t seem so meaningless after all. Harvest Moon is the sound of a man making his peace with these changes.
Though Neil’s increasing tendency toward the lyrically banal hits something of a nadir on Harvest Moon, it’s nonetheless difficult to deny the charms of an album so exquisite and beguiling, even if Neil claims the album’s prevailing schema was not a result of an aesthetic decision but a medical one — he claimed around this time that he suffered from hyperacusis, an oversensitivity to certain frequencies and sounds, rendering every noise excruciating, from a whisper to a dump truck. Though this story isn’t compatible with the Neil of just two years later, back to bashing his Les Paul on the decidedly unquiet Sleeps With Angels, it’s crucial to remember that we don’t look to Neil for consistency any more than we look to Waka Flocka Flame for relationship advice.
Even beyond the title of the album, it’s easy to see why Harvest Moon invites comparisons, however facile, to Harvest. Most of the members of Neil’s Stray Gators band from the original Harvest session return on Harvest Moon: Tim Drummond on bass, Ben Keith on steel guitar, Kenny Buttrey on drums, and vocal harmonies by the returning James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. Harvest Moon also adds Nicolette Larson and Astrid Young (Neil’s half sister) on vocals, and the legendary Spooner Oldham on keys, piano, and pump organ. Even Jack Nitzche is back, arranging the grandiose and garish “Such A Woman.” More on that later.
But where Harvest is a great collection of songs that lacks focus as an album, Harvest Moon maintains a consistent tone. Where the former is scattered, idiosyncratic, and excoriating, the latter is lush, meticulous, and endearingly corny. A good, potentially dangerous drinking game would be to take a sip every time you spotted a critic using the word ‘wistful’ to describe Harvest Moon.
It’s obvious from the first seconds of Harvest Moon‘s leadoff track “Unknown Legend” that great care has gone into capturing the album’s every sound. This chimerical love song about a waitress is worlds apart from the frequently cacophonous, VU meter-punishing approach favored by Young on bonafide masterpieces like Time Fades Away and Tonight’s The Night, and it sets the tone for the rest of the record. Despite its sharp focus, however, the production on Harvest Moon is refreshingly un-glossy, predicting some of T-Bone Burnett’s pristine-not-lifeless work with Gillian Welch and Natalie Merchant a decade later. For Harvest Moon, Neil also played guitar without a pick -– a first –- and built his own echo chambers, refusing to rely on the digital reverb that would have certainly clashed with the rustic, lived-in feel of the album. On Harvest Moon, nothing is accidental.
The songs, which are mostly superb, are buoyed by this attention to sonic detail. The blending of Neil’s harmonica with Oldham’s spectral pump organ on the reflective “From Hank To Hendrix,” a song that charts a love affair using cultural icons as a temporal yardstick, is stunning. “You And Me” is a minimal piece melodically indebted to “Old Man” (and “For The Turnstiles”) that features vocals by Neil understudy Nicolette Larson (whose 1978 cover of “Lotta Love” is still the only version of a Neil Young song that bests the original). Borrowing the chord progression of The Everly Brothers’ “Walk Right Back,” Harvest Moon’s title track remains one of Neil’s greatest songs, rendered beautiful by thickets of glinting reverb, cascading steel guitar, and winsome, pattering percussion. If latter day Neil Young records are often characterized by a tendency to mistake sentimentality for poignancy, this magnificent love song falls well on the side of the latter. If the hackneyed “War Of Man,” a song whose clichéd sentiments are driven home by a butt-rock chorus worthy of Blue Oyster Cult, doesn’t fare as well, Tim Drummond’s juddering bass and a beautiful female vocal showcase late in the song ably redeem the schmaltz. The amiable-sounding “One Of These Days” is another album highlight, a deceptively elegiac tune that finds our hero besieged by a sudden awareness of mortality, even if the song effectively exists to unhook Neil from the obligation of actually having to write the letter he promises to write in the song. With understated piano and minimal steel guitar, the song is personalized by references to Neil’s Canadian prairie home and toasts to former musical coconspirators. Along with the similarly sparkling “Dreaming Man,” “One Of These Days” redeems a sputtering second side.
“Such A Woman” is a fiasco, an ecclesiastic-sounding orchestral number that reportedly made Neil’s wife uncomfortable whenever he performed it. It makes me a little uncomfortable, too. “The idea is I sang about the same subject matter with 20 years more experience,” he told Greg Kott of the Chicago Tribune in 1992. The man who once wrote of wanting a woman to keep his house clean, cook his meals, and “go away” was now attempting to honor all of womanhood with a trite lyric and pompous arrangement that would make Richard Marx wince. Nitzche is one of rock and roll’s geniuses, but given the way “Such A Woman” so dramatically disrupts the feel and flow of the album (note the drastically different –- and terrible –- drum sound), he’d be wise to leave this one off the CV.
Also expendable is Neil’s ode to a fallen pet, “Old King,” in which he eulogizes as follows: “Old King sure meant a lot to me / But that hound dog is his-to-reee.” “Martha, My Dear” it ain’t, and when one recalls that Harvest‘s tribute to a fallen friend was the astounding “The Needle And The Damage Done,” the casual insouciance of “Old King” seems all the more objectionable. Neil even admits in the song to having kicked the poor mutt “when he was bad.” For this one, it is Neil that deserves the kicking.
Album closer “Natural Beauty” isn’t as sprawling as other Neil epics that exceed 10 minutes, and, perhaps frustratingly, doesn’t aspire to be. Recorded live at Portland, Oregon’s Civic Auditorium, the song unfolds languidly, featuring a harmonica where we’d normally expect a guitar solo. The song does, however, appropriately conclude Harvest Moon with restraint, or with as much restraint as can reasonably be expected from 10-minute paean to Gaia.
Harvest Moon resonated. Neil appeared on television to promote the album more than he had in his entire career. The huge push from the label and the tireless press campaign seemed to work some sort of ancient magic. The album almost instantly went platinum, garnering four Grammy nominations, and peaking at #16 on the Billboard chart, and remains one of Neil Young’s most beloved LPs. Bernard Shaw may have been correct in his estimation that youth is wasted on the young, but Harvest Moon counters with some equally astute wisdom: Romantic love, ageless, won’t be denied.