To hear and see Neil Young express such deep-seated personal contentment near the end of his film Harvest Time
is to understand more fully why he would go to some lengths to curate a box set of the album upon which the movie is based. While some of the content enclosed on the CDs and DVDs in the 50th Anniversary Edition
of the 1972 album has been in unofficial circulation for awhile, immersion in the collection vividly depicts the vagaries of the creative process in general, not just this iconoclastic Canadian's. It is akin to assembling a puzzle by poring through the audio and video in various forms, plus the hardcover book of enlightening photos and prose, then gazing at the poster of the album's back cover (wishing it had been replaced with one of the scenic shots of the ranch that features so prominently here).
Blasphemous as it might sound, Neil Young's most commercially-successful album, Harvest
(Reprise, 1972) 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.
This global success is an achievement that belies the recordings and (some of) the original music that was inferior to his previous output, especially in comparison to the prior solo album, After The Gold Rush
(Reprise, 1970). Of course, in the interim, Young's work with Crosby Stills & Nash
helped in no small part to elevate his profile since the release of his eponymous solo album, released in the wake of his departure from Buffalo Springfield, and then his initial work with Crazy Horse, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
Worthy of a Grammy nomination in itself, archivist/photographer Joel Bernstein's clear-headed combination of prose and photos in the hardbound five-inch square fifty-six pages, combined with the images of Hendry Diltz and others), reveals at least some of the details of the period. Young himself did not divulge much of the kind till years later: serious back issues and treatment with medication thereof prevented him from playing too much electric guitar the way he usually didthere is a photo of him in traction on page eight which may also account for the turgid motion that so often prevails throughout the LP.
In contrast to the commanding combination of fragility and resolute strength so evident on the BBC solo footage (where the audio is oddly muffled at certain points), "Words" simply plods on, much like "Old Man" from the album proper. In stark contrast, the nuances of the latter's gorgeous melody, like that of "Out On The Weekend," become resplendent when Young plays them solo on acoustic guitar in a circle-in- the-round setting captured by the BBC.
Meanwhile, "Are You Ready for the Country?" lacks a genuinely spry bounce despite the presence of savvy Nashville sessioneer 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 much more than "There's A World."
In comparison, a solo performance recorded live of "The Needle and The Damage Done" is the best composition to find its way to this release. There were some others of equal and arguably greater quality that unfortunately did not become final inclusions either, but in light of how Young cobbled together other albums from a variety of sourcesAmerican Stars 'n Bars
(Reprise, 1977) is just oneit's reasonable to suggest some of these live cuts, plus the outtakes, would make for a better album than Harvest
(the forced rhymes of which song might compel another name for that LP).
Arguably superior to anything on the album as it was eventually released, "Bad Fog of Loneliness" is among the three included on a woefully-short (seven-minute nine-second) CD labeled 'Harvest Outtakes" (considering the time available on a disc, they might have been included with the LP's ten cuts). It swings unlike most of the band tracks on the album proper and although "Dance Dance Dance" is proportionately slight compared to the aforementioned song, its upbeat air, thanks no doubt in part to the presence of Tony Joe White on electric guitar, would effectively lighten the mood in juxtaposition with "Journey Through The Past.''
This forlorn reflection is one of the highlights of its author's songwriting careerif there is any such thing as resolute vulnerability, this is itand while it sounds somewhat too busy here with the Gators, compared to solo renditions, it has its earthy charm nonetheless, courtesy of Keith's dobro. Building an album around this number and its counterparts would potentially make for a significant and substantial piece of work, albeit one whose virtues might be a bit difficult to discern.
As it turned out, Harvest
was a project in which Neil Young's usually reliable instincts by and large failed him. Indicative of the misfire is his refusal to heed late mentor/friend/producer Davd Briggs' advisory to release Live At Massey Hall 1971
(Reprise, 2007) in 1971. But that only ratifies the validity of including the eight selections of performance content in this box set on both CD and DVD; four selections from Harvest are from a 'BBC In Concert' segment as well as another quasi-gem, "Love In Mind" (its egregiously cringe-inducing lines needing only the slightest crafting to remedy).
The latter song would eventually show up on Time Fades Away
(Reprise, 1973), one of three albums often referred to as 'The Ditch Trilogy (with On the Beach
(Reprise, 1974) and Tonight's The Night
(Reprise,1975). Comprising Neil Young's expression of abiding discomfort with the elevated level of celebrity that arose from the success of his fourth solo album, those records not only echo the trepidation he communicated in "Mr. Soul," from Buffalo Springfield Again
(Atco, 1967), but belie his commanding presence on stage four years later.
Still, in further hindsight courtesy of Young himself, the release of the live archive-title Tuscaloosa
(Reprise, 2019), featuring those same musicians dubbed 'The Stray Gators,' further relegates the commercially-acclaimed studio effort to a lower position in the rankings of his discography. Re- listening to its most famous track in fact, reaffirms that notion: it is difficult to fathom the popularity of the literal-minded writing of "Heart of Gold," except that the very familiarity of the conceit hit a chord with the mainstream public.
On its own terms, this doesn't sound like the same man who composed "Don't Let It Bring You Down" (the virtual centerpiece of the BBC set (or the early highlights of his tenure with the Springfield for that matter). There's also a nagging sense of egocentric entitlement at the heart of the number recorded with the band: that fault may or may not be the vestigial influence of working with his three famous peers, but it's one that also flashes occasionally in the documentary (but is noticeably missing from the acoustic rendition).
The mastering by Chris Bellman results in audio that somewhat mitigates the blemishes of the LP. The spacious ambiance of the barn comes through on "Are You Ready For the Country?" and even though the tracks with the orchestra threaten to dwarf Young himself, it's an appropriate means of emphasizing the solitude intrinsic to the songs.
Ultimately, the mega-success that is Harvest
lies almost purely on the mercenary front. Yet, this inveterate iconoclast has even honored the milestone with a sequel (Harvest Moon
(Reprise, 1992), so the issuing of a lavish box set only adds to the irony of it all, especially as, in keeping with the idiosyncratic approach Young took with Archives Volume II: 19721976
(Reprise, 2020), he's effectively offering an alternate version of the much-beloved album.
Still, in watching Harvest Time
in its entirety, the archival initiative makes more sense than otherwise. In fact, the two-hour piece of cinema might be the central component of the box set if it were more formally edited: lacking an outright intro or transitional content (only clumsy tape splices suffice for the latter), it's necessary to exert some patience to discern the sequence of events as they unfold over the duration. Such is the effort it becomes comparable to that required by Peter Jackson's The Beatles Get Back
film, but it does make an feasible outline for the project (and for devotees a virtual treasure map).
Still, at the conclusion, to hear the famously irascible Neil Young come right out and say how happy he isa sentiment echoed at the end of the aforementioned essay by Bernsteinis to understand why he would want to bring attention to this transformative period of his life and career.
CD 1 - Harvest: Out On The Weekend; Harvest; A Man Needs A Maid; Heart Of Gold; Are You
Ready For The Country?; Old Man; There’s A World; Alabama; The Needle And The Damage
Done. CD 2 - Words (Between The Lines Of Age). BBC In Concert: Out On The Weekend; Old
Man; Journey Through The Past; Heart of Gold; Don’t Let It Bring You Down; A Man Needs A
Maid; Love in Mind; Dance Dance Dance. CD 3 - Outtakes: Bad Fog Of Loneliness; Journey
Through The Past; Dance Dance Dance. DVD 1: Harvest Time. DVD 2: BBC In Concert - Out
On The Weekend; Old Man; Journey Through The Past; Heart of Gold; Don’t Let It Bring You
Down; A Man Needs A Maid; Love in Mind; Dance Dance Dance
Neil Young: guitar; Ben Keith: dobro; James McMahon: piano; Jack Nitzsche: piano lap steel
guitar; John Harris: piano; London Symphony Orchestra (conducted by David Meecham); Tim
Drummond: bass; Kenny Buttrey: drums; Linda Ronstadt: vocals; James Taylor: banjo guitar;
David Crosby: vocals; Graham Nash: vocals; Stephen Stills: vocals