Blasphemous as it might sound, Neil Young’s most commercially-successful album Harvest (released 2/1/72) is an object lesson in appealing to the lowest common denominator. Not that such underachieving was the Canadian rock icon’s intent with his fourth solo album, post-Buffalo Springfield. But circumstances converged to provide him a mainstream hit, “Heart of Gold,” that helped carry his music to the masses in a way his previous records did not. That said, the music was inferior to his previous output, especially in comparison to the prior solo album, After The Gold Rush.
Of course, his work with Crosby Stills and Nash helped in no small part to elevate Neil’s profile in the interim since his initial work with Crazy Horse, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. And while the aforementioned 1970 album was originally intended to be another record with that motley group, various elements conspired to prevent that from happening. As was also the case with Harvest, conceptually speaking, although Young didn’t reveal all the details til years later: serious back issues prevented him from playing too much electric guitar the way he usually did.
Little wonder, then, that so many tracks plod, like “Old Man” and “Out on the Weekend.” Or that “Are You Ready for the Country” lacks a genuinely spry step despite the presence of savvy sessioneers like drummer Kenny Buttrey. And, contemporary political correctitude aside, as with the social diatribe that is “Alabama”–a sequel to the similarly simplistic thinking at the heart of “Southern Man”–“A Man Needs A Maid” doesn’t benefit from the heavily-orchestrated arrangement. In contrast, in a solo performance recorded live (one of the multiple sources for the eleven tracks),“The Needle and The Damage Done” is the best composition to find its way to this release.
There were some others of equal quality, such as “Bad Fog of Loneliness,” that did become final inclusions. But then Harvest was a project in which Neil Young’s usually reliable instincts by and large failed him: he went ahead with this serendipitous studio project against the wishes of his wizened kindred spirit David Briggs, who campaigned, to no avail, on behalf of releasing Live At Massey Hall 1971 in its stead (and Neil has admitted as much). Not that the latter concert piece has eclipsed the impact of the studio album in the interim, but retrospect of half a century suggests adhering to the wisdom of his late guiding light would not have adversely affected Young’s career.
Still, in further hindsight from Neil himself, the release of the live archive-title Tuscaloosa, featuring many of the same musicians dubbed The Stray Gators, further relegates Harvest to a lower position in rankings of entries in the Neil Young discography. Re-listening to its most famous track in fact, reaffirms that notion: it is difficult to fathom the literal-minded writing of “Heart of Gold” with the elliptical imagery in earlier and far superior compositions and productions like “On The Way Home,” “Mr. Soul” or “Don’t Let It Bring you Down.”
Plus there’s a nagging sense of egocentric entitlement in the attitude at the heart of the number, which may or may not be the vestigial influence of working with CSN.
The popularity of the LP wasn’t all to Young’s advantage either. He quickly began to rue the necessity of playing venues large enough to accommodate the crowds who were eager to see him. He reneged on the stance in later years—see CSNY tour 1974)–but the cover photo of Time Fades Away captures the perspective that moved Neil to avoid playing mammoth arenas –at least temporarily–where audiences clamored for his best-known material, to the exclusion of much of his other catalog.
Ultimately, the mega-success that is Harvest lies almost purely on the mercenary front. this inveterate iconoclast has even honored the milestone with a sequel (Harvest Moon), but that only adds to the decidedly irony of it all.