Neil Young’s ‘Harvest’: A Track-by-Track Guide

Neil Young was certainly a known commodity, with an upward trajectory, when he brought Harvest out in February 1972.

The Canadian expatriate had established his rep first with Buffalo Springfield and then with three solo albums before achieving superstar status by joining forces with Crosby, Stills & Nash. But Harvest, landing behind CSNY‘s chart-topping live set 4 Way Street, gave Young yet another vault in status. It was his only solo album to top the Billboard 200 (becoming the best-selling album in the U.S. in 1972) and yield a No. 1 single in “Heart of Gold.” It was ultimately certified four-times platinum and, in 2015, inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

More important was the sonic surprise waiting for listeners at the start of “Out on the Weekend” and continuing through Harvest‘s 10 tracks. Recorded with co-producers Jack Nitzsche, Elliot Mazer and Henry Lewy, Harvest was Young’s mellowest release yet, organic and, in many cases, spontaneous in the studio.

It began, unknowingly, with a Jan. 30, 1971, solo concert at UCLA that produced “The Needle and the Damage Done,” and continued in earnest at Mazer’s newly opened Quadrafonic Sound Studios in Nashville, which Young checked out after filming an episode of The Johnny Cash Show with Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor in early February 1971.

Armed with a batch of songs he’d been performing at solo shows, Young asked Mazer to assemble a band, which became the Stray Gators contingent of Ben Keith on steel guitar, Tim Drummond on bass and drummer Kenny Buttrey. Ronstadt and Taylor came by to provide some backing vocals, while David Crosby, Graham Nash and Stephen Stills would be added at subsequent sessions at Young’s northern California ranch. Nitzsche added piano and lap steel later on and arranged the London Symphony Orchestra contributions on “A Man Needs a Maid” and “There’s a World.”

The results were polarizing at the time. Time has been kinder, and Harvest is acknowledged as a beloved classic now. It spawned a sequel, Harvest Moon, 20 years later, and is regularly featured on worldwide polls of greatest albums. We break down Neil Young’s Harvest in the Track-by-Track Guide below.

“Out on the Weekend”

A gentle chug and Young’s sweet harmonica introduce Harvest‘s country-leaning and gentle demeanor, showcasing the Stray Gators’ delicate restraint and reserve. But there are also signs that the ride won’t be easy. The song’s lyrical temperament is melancholy, with Young’s narrator “a lonely boy” who’s trying to get out of Dodge and “start a brand new day,” which may or may not include a past love who’s “in my mind.” There’s no resolution, but Young has certainly set the table to take us to the LP’s title track.

 

“Harvest”

The album’s slow and undeniably pretty title track finds Young still wringing his hands over (the same?) romance and pondering if the love he receives will be “more than I can take.” Young’s questions hang evocatively in the arrangement’s abundant space, with Keith’s pedal steel and John Harris’ piano mitigating the enormous tension posed by the lyrics. Young has said he considers it the best song on Harvest.

 

“A Man Needs a Maid”

Young’s first piano notes offer hints of “After the Gold Rush,” but Harvest‘s third track quickly becomes a hushed rumination on — guess what? — love and the portents of a new relationship. Young references his relationship with Carrie Snodgress — mother of his first son, Zeke — as he sings, “I was watching a movie with a friend / I Fell in love with the actress,” but there’s also a great deal of insecurity expressed throughout the song. Some of that came from being laid up after back surgery and really in need of some help when he wrote the song, but Young subsequently told concert audiences, “It doesn’t really mean what it says. … I don’t really want a maid.” Young also noted later that Bob Dylan told him the voice, piano and orchestra arrangement, criticized by some, was one of his favorite Young recordings.

 

“Heart of Gold” 

Dylan said he disliked Young’s biggest hit single, but millions of others would disagree. Young himself wrote in the liner notes to his Decade compilation that “Heart of Gold” “put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch.” But he protests too much. The first track on Harvest with some tempo, it’s a no-brainer No. 1, with a beautiful melody, rich backing vocals by Ronstadt and Taylor and a yearning lyric most anybody can relate to, now as well as back in the “sensitive” early ’70s. Though recorded in Nashville, “Heart of Gold” is a template for what became known as California folk-rock.

 

“Are You Ready for the Country?”

Young is even more spirited as he closes Harvest’s first side, leading the Stray Gators with his striding piano while Keith’s pedal steel weeps away in the background and Crosby and Nash chiming in on backing vocals. It seems like a bit of a toss-off after the emotional weight of the previous four tracks, but Waylon Jennings found it sincere enough to record and have a Top 10 hit with it in 1976, while Hank Williams Jr. and Eric Church teamed up for another version in 2015.

 

“Old Man”

Another Young classic and concert staple, this mid-tempo, country-flavored tune was inspired by Louis Avila, the caretaker on Young’s ranch (though Young’s father thought it was about him when he first heard it). Keith’s pedal steel colors the song, while Taylor’s banjo further elevates the track. “Old Man” has been covered by Puddle of Mudd, Lizz Wright and Dallas Green, and it accompanied a slideshow during actor Heath Ledger’s memorial service in 2008. Young memorably performed it with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show in 2015, with Fallon sporting a Young-inspired fringe jacket.

 

“There’s a World”

The second orchestrated track on Harvest begins with thundering timpani and sweeping strings, which in turn make the stripped-back verses seem light in comparison. More an exercise in Nitzsche’s scoring acumen than Young’s songwriting, “There’s a World” is Harvest‘s one skippable moment.

 

“Alabama”

Young returns to the themes, melody and structure of 1970’s “Southern Man,” which, along with “Alabama,” inspired Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s 1974 smash “Sweet Home Alabama.” It’s Harvest‘s strongest “statement,” not quite as strident and angry as its predecessor but featuring some welcome electric guitar eight songs into the LP. Crosby and Stills’ harmonies, meanwhile, were another hopeful sign that Young still had CSNY in his creative crosshairs.

 

“The Needle and the Damage Done”

Crazy Horse’s Danny Whitten would not die until three months after Harvest‘s release, but the specter of his heroin addiction — as well as other musicians Young knew who had the monkey on their back — permeates “The Needle and the Damage Done.” Young tread lightly on its intent, writing in Decade‘s notes that “I am not a preacher, but drugs killed a lot of great men,” and its prescience in Whitten’s case was downright spooky. The solo performance at UCLA’s Royce Hall gave “The Needle” a greater immediacy, making it at once a lament and a prayer.

 

“Words (Between the Lines of Age)”

Young is enough of a master of irony that a song called “Words” actually features the most instrumental playing on Harvest — and is more about the winding guitar solos than the lyrics themselves, though it’s always nice to hear Stills and Nash singing with him. The stretched-out arrangement a la “Cowgirl in the Sand” was subsequently examined in a 16-minute version from the Journey Through the Past film and its soundtrack, the latter of which came out just nine months after Harvest.

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Neil Young is one of rock’s most brilliant, confounding, defiant and frustrating artists.

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