Neil Young - Harvest Moon

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.

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Comments (13)
  1. I’ve always held this album in high esteem, despite the few outright duds and other conspicuous flaws, all of which you’ve ably noted above. It’s certainly a fine example of an album being greater than the component parts, and perhaps my favorite post-”Rust Never Sleeps” Neil Young album.

  2. ??? Harvest Moon was 16 in August. You guys need a fact checker over there?? lol, smh.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvest_Moon_(video_game)

  3. Great write-up, James. Thanks a lot.

    I saw this album less as part of a trilogy or a sequel to harvest but the Dr. Jekyll to “Ragged Glory”‘s Mr. Hyde. Neil is maybe the only songwriter in the world to have two distinctly different and equally magnificent modes of presenting his material — and those two albums really crystallize that.

    War of Man is also a horrible song. A war of MAN? of MAN? As opposed to a war of sea urchins or potato bugs? Oh ok, Got ya. That and Such a Woman are the only songs I skip on this album.

    • You have to remember, this came out the year after Terminator 2: Judgment Day, so a war of machines seemed totally plausible to most people. Neil Young obviously didn’t see that movie.

  4. -’Such A Woman’ is a highlight on this album, which is one of NY’s best.

    -How is ‘Godfather of Grunge’ an ‘unfortunate epithet’ when the phrase is neither unfortunate nor an epithet?

    I really don’t understand this new trend in music critics professing to like Neil Young while expressing disdain for his lyrics, his bombast and a total reevaluation downward of “grunge” in general, of which Neil Young was most definitely a major progenitor.

    • I think the unfortunate part comes from the fact that it made Young sound like ALL he did was noisy rock records, but then came uut with this…and confused that part of his potentially new audience. It did me, at least – it took me years to love this album.

      And im with you, mostly, on Such A Woman. I love it, although sometimes I feel like I can hear its flaws. Then other times I’ll isten and wonder what it was that I didn’t like. Maybe it just sounds really out of place on this album.

      Either way, I love this album and how understated it (mostly) is. Great write-up.

  5. This is great post! Now, Neil Young albums from worst to best please?

    • I’ll make this easy: the worst Neil Young album is “Landing on Water”. The album sounded like someone at Geffen wanted Neil to make an album to “sound like a Don Henley album”, so he hired Henley’s producer (Danny Kortchmar) and foisted this piece of shit onto the world.

      • No dude it is not that easy. Landing on Water is bad but it still has to contend with Life (the follow-up which is equally as bad), the Doo-Wop/Rockabilly album whose name escapes me at the moment, Trans (the electro-synth album), This Note’s For You, Are You Passionate? (the pro-Bush doctrine war album), and the unlistenable experimental-feedback live album Arc.

        It would be really difficult list to compile.

        • The doo-wop record is “Everybody’s rockin” and I do agree it is really bad. But as far as “Trans” is concerned, I read everywhere it is bad then I listened to it and found it has some kind of interest and good songs despite the horrifying synth sound. I found it actually better than “Life” and “Landing on Water” (it is difficult for me to say which one is worse). “Arc” is not an album per se and I never managed to listen to it. I hate “Are you passionate?” but I would not qualify it as bad, perhaps just boring and irrelevant (especially Let’s roll lyrics).

          But I totally agree it is a difficult list to create. Even for the best albums. For instance I count “Mirrorball” as one of my favorites along with “After the Gold Rush” and “Rust never sleeps” and “Ragged Glory” and “Tonight’s the night”, but I am pretty sure a lot of people disagree with this choice.

          Once Neil said (I think it is in Weld) “it’s all one song”. What is really difficult is that even in the worst records there is a killer song. For instance “Reactor” is close to being really bad, but there is “Shots” which is an absolute masterpiece I think.

          That said, it would be nice if Stereogum tries to come up with a list. In the end, we don’t care if they are right or wrong, we just argue over the stuff and that’s the fun of it.

          • Guys, Stereogum could offer me a corner office and a boat – I ain’t going near a “Neil Young Worst To Best” list, and I say that as a man with a ‘What Would Neil Young Do?’ tattoo. :)

            You guys are underrating Life – “Prisoners Of Rock and Roll” is amazing. Production is rough but it’s not as bad as Landing On Water, which I agree is mostly indefensible. Trans is magnificent and so is Re*ac*tor. Can’t really defend Are You Passionate or Everybody’s Rockin,’ but at least they’re kinda fun to listen to once.

            I listened to the new one twice this weekend and, uh…I kinda love it. Well, I love half of it. My favorite since Le Noise. What do you guys think?

          • “Shots” and “Southern Pacific” redeem ReAcTor from being among the very worst albums. The top albums would be equally difficult to rank though — I think the most “objectively good” Neil albums are probably Tonight’s the Night, After the Gold Rush, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Rust Never Sleeps, and On the Beach. After that, it’s pretty much anyone’s guess. I, for one, always had a soft spot for Silver and Gold.

            I sort of stopped listening to Neil after Are You Passionate’s obtuse pro-war stance. However, a couple of months ago, I tracked down “Le Noise” and was pleasantly surprised.

  6. Ranking Neil Young’s best albums is nearly impossible, given his stylistic changes, much less given how expansive his discography is. I for example agree completely with After the Gold Rush, Rust Never Sleeps, and On The Beach being in the top, however I would easily rank Zuma ahead of Tonight’s The Night (although it appears many here would disagree with that). As for ranking after the ones you mentioned, I would say Come a Time, Ragged Glory, and (wait for it) Greendale. Yeah I said it, Greendale. Maybe it is because I got into Neil Young right around the time Greendale was released, but I really cannot give a reason why I have such a soft spot for it. Songs like Sun Green are just so awesome, it is hard not to love it.

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