It may be a bit controversial to name a decidedly “retro” album as the album of the year for any particular year.
Many rock fans who reflect back on the era of the early nineties, and the year 1992 in particular, will rightfully think of the alternative or “grunge” craze which had then fully materialized. But Classic Rock Review is all about timelessness in rock, and Harvest Moon by Neil Young may have sounded like something that should have been made 20 years earlier, but 20 years later it holds up as well as anything from 1992. So we chose this restrained, Nashville-produced, Americana classic over anything that came out of Seattle that year.
Much speculation has been made about the relationship of this album to Young’s 1972 album Harvest, with many labeling Harvest Moon as a “sequel” to that album two decades earlier. There certainly is a case to be made due to the similarities in title, the fact that both albums were recorded in Nashville with some of the same players (dubbed the “Stray Gators” by Young), Ben Keith on pedal Steel, Tim Drummand on bass, and Kenny Buttrey on drums. Then, of course, there is the plain fact that the albums are very similar in sound and arrangement. However, Young denied that there was a strong connection between the two albums in an interview;
…people see the correlation between the two, and it’s kind of a plus to be able to refer back 20 years and see the same people and do that. But the thrust of the albums is different, even though the subject matter is similar, so I tend to shy away more from comparisons between them…”
Young spent much of the 1980s experimenting with vastly different styles from electronic to rockabilly to hard-edged electric rock. Previous to Harvest Moon he explored the outer limits of guitar noise with the 1990 album Ragged Glory, recorded along with his sometime backing band, Crazy Horse. In this light, Young’s return to his predominant style of the 1970s, was just another radical turn in style. While most longtime fans and critics appreciated this move, some found his return the antipathy of spontaneity and therefore less ambitious.
The opening track on Harvest Moon is “Unknown Legend”, a song of romance and imagination which tells of an adventurous woman who has settled into the relative obscurity of domestic life and middle age. The sound is intentionally retro and haunting with the deep reverb and a sparse, acoustic arrangement beneath the strong melody which is harmonized by Linda Rondstadt. The song’s lyrics are bittersweet and poetic;
..the chrome and steel she rides colliding with the very air she breathes…”
“From Hank to Hendrix” is a self-reflective county-rock song which speaks of Young’s own diverse influences and is led by a strong harmonica riff musically while it lyrically sounds like it may have been influenced by younger contemporaries like Tom Petty. “You and Me” is the most direct link back to Harvest, with strong elements of “Old Man” and “Needle and the Damage Done” evident implicitly and explicitly. It is a personal and introspective ballad with a very sparse arrangement of just acoustic guitar and vocals by Young and Nicolette Larsen who does some fine harmonizing.
What truly makes the album a masterpiece is the absolute masterpiece of a title song, “Harvest Moon”. The song celebrates longevity in relationships and love affairs with a flawless melody backed by a perfect music arrangement. From the upfront acoustic riffing to the picked steel guitar, subtleties of ethereal sounds, soft brush strokes on the drums, and beautiful background vocals, this song captures the essence of beauty and romance as well any song ever.
The middle of the album contains a couple more Neil Young classics. “War of Man” is dark folk with an Americana aura throughout, where Young comments on the destructive tendencies of mankind. It contains a haunting acoustic arrangement with some interesting presence by Drummand on bass, who breaks into an almost-rock rhythm towards the end. In comparison to the cynical “War of Man”, the next song “One Of These Days” could not be more different in tone, although similar in overall quality as a song. It is a song of gratitude and appreciation of friends and acquaintances, set to a moderate Nashville beat with more great melodies and harmonies.
The album next thins a bit with the all-to-soft piano and orchestral ballad “Such a Woman” and the frivolous “Old King”, which is only finds salvation with the fine banjo picking by Young. However, the album does end strong with the return to the solid, Nashville-influenced accessibility in “Dreamin’ Man” and the ten minute, live acoustic closer “Natural Beauty”. This last song is a gentle, minor-key folk song which uses nature as an allegory for love.
Harvest Moon was Young’s 21st overall album and, although it was highly reflective, it was far from his last. In fact, just this month (June 2012) Young released his 34th overall album, a collection of traditional standards called Americana, which he recorded along with Crazy Horse. It may seem absurd to suggest that Young may still be around making music in yet another 20 years, when he’ll be age 86. But we wouldn’t bet against it.
After the angst of his early work and the metallic thrashing of the later albums, Harvest Moon reveals the true Neil Young. The Neil Young that was
left behind in the post-hippie trauma that was seventies rock. With Harvest Moon, Neil finally grows up!
Ragged Glory was Young at his snarling best – plenty of volume on the guitar and powerful lyrics to match. Arc was an epitaph to that period, an exercise in self-indulgent exorcism. Harvest Moon is mature. This is music not from the heart or the head, but from, and for, the soul. Neil’s music is always fresh, often surprising, sometimes maudlin, intense and perplexing, but never until this quite so (aw shucks!) heart-warming.
Harvest Moon is the quintessential down-home-mom’s-apple-pie American folk album. It’s one of the few Neil Young albums that you can share with the one you love, along with a bottle of something nice, without having to apologetically hit the fast forward button or move the tracking arm forward.
The fact that it has undoubtedly won new admirers of Neil’s work is due just as much to its refusal to conform to what you might expect, as to its undoubted wider appeal. “You and Me” could easily have been on Harvest, the other NY album to enjoy a mass audience, while “Old King” is probably too country for Country Music Television.
The title track is one of the most evocative songs from the most evocative of songsmiths. It is pure beauty, one of those songs which you live, recalling long lost summer nights and inducing that sad nostalgia that comes from knowing you’ll probably never quite get there again. If it has a theme, Harvest Moon is about love, and love in its many guises. That is love of nature, love for old friends, love for a favorite pet, and yes, even the standard boy meets girl is expressed here, and in a refreshing fashion to boot. While probably not the most favored album among Neil’s hardcore fans, this is nevertheless a masterpiece. There is not a single weak track, and from the very first listen you get the feeling that you’re seeing the real man stripped bare for all.
Some people have found it very easy to be cynical about Harvest Moon, but then they’ve probably never been in love, and if you have then you’ll know. This album would make such a fitting epitaph for Neil Young that it’s scary. Whilst hoping that it won’t be, it’s difficult to see where he can go from here. But of course, this is
Neil Young we’re talking about.
After the loud, raw Ragged Glory/Weld tour in 91, Neil Young was recovering from tinnitus and had decided to put down the distorted electric guitar and to revisit his acoustic side, as exhibited on the chart-topping Harvest and lesser-known Comes A Time. The result was Harvest Moon.
1) Unknown Legend
This song sets the tone for the rest of the album. It’s played in a very country style, with the lyrics telling of a free-spirited woman who rides the desserts with a Harley-Davidson. Neil Young veteran, Ben Keith’s slide guitar stands out, as well as with female backing vocals from (also Neil Young veterans) Nicolette Larson and Linda Ronstadt. There are some nice clean electric guitar fills in between verses that you will be humming for hours after hearing. 4/5
2) From Hank To Hendrix
This is an upbeat song about a woman Neil loves who he’s been with since, well forever. It’s a nice upbeat song with lots of Neil’s classic folk harmonica, pump organ between verses and a prominently thumpy bass line. Neil does it again with his lyrics, especially how he expresses his love for music in “Can we get it together, Can we still stand side by side, Can we make it last, Like a musical ride?” 5/5
3) You and Me
One word. Reverb. This song is performed solo by Neil, sounding like he’s playing alone to himself in an empty auditorium. It’s a very mellow, repetitive song (like Round and Round off of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere) with lots of his trademark slides and hammer-ons. He starts to duet with Nicolette Larson after a while, and the song ends suddenly at nearly the four-minute mark. 3.5/5
4) Harvest Moon
This, the title track, most popular song and sole Greatest Hits representative off of Harvest Moon is by no means overrated. Corny at times, yes, but a solid song as well. The sound of a broom being swept features in the background prominently, providing an atmospheric touch to the mellow country-style ballad that is ‘Harvest Moon’. The lyrics are pretty unremarkable, just a typical love-ballad, but are still very catchy, along with the acoustic lick the pops up here and there. The harmonica solo towards he end is one of Neil’s best. 5/5
5) War of Man
This is (how can I say this?) the “heaviest” song on the album. Like ‘No Wonder’ off of Prairie Wind, this song definitely stands apart from the other songs, mainly because it features more ‘rock’ style instrumentation (dig Kenny Buttrey’s drums) than the country feel on the rest of the album, and the lyrics paint a more abstract mental picture. The backing vocalists take over at one point, and Neil lays his patented acoustic playing style all over the place. A nice little solo mimicking the vocal line pops up at the end, and the song fades out right before you start to get bored. Perfecto. 4/5
6) One of These Days
This is one of the songs you just know is going to close the concert when he plays it, it just has that feel to it (he actually did so in the ‘Heart of Gold’ movie, which you should check out by the way). The chorus is catchy as hell, and it’s hard to not sing along with it if you’re driving in a car or are alone listening to it. The lyrics are uplifting, but closer analysis really shows their sour side; the line “One of these days, I’m gonna’ sit down and write a long letter ,To all the good friends I’ve known” could actually mean that he he’ll never actually get around to said task. Still, nice song. 4.5/5
7) Such a Woman
Ah, the big, orchestral piece, the ‘There’s A World’, the ‘A Man Needs A Maid’, the ‘Living With War’. It’s over before you know it, but it’s a beautiful love song. The lyrics are few, but nice, telling of the only woman who can fulfill Neil’s love so much. Give it a listen, Jack Nitzsche (pronounced Nitch-ee, and not Neech-yeh)’s string arrangement is fantastic. 4.5/5
8} Old King
This is a fun song. It features Neil plucking a banjo riff that’ll be bouncing around in your head for days and a fast-paced tempo. The song itself is about Neil’s faithful dog, Elvis, and their adventures together before he “up and died”. I’m not sure if it’s a satire off hick-style music or just unintentionally that way, but this little two-minute gem is a funny one. 4.5/5
9) Dreamin’ Man
This song is a predecessor of ‘Here for You’ from Prairie Wind, with similar arrangement and vocal line, and since I heard the latter first, I can’t help but compare this one to that one. It’s an upbeat song, with a little, plucky riff between verses and somewhat angelic backing vocals. This is one of the more forgettable numbers (I stress no bad connotations on that statement), but it is not as bland and empty like, say, ‘You And Me’ or ‘War of Man’, so it’s still worth a listen. 3/5
10) Natural Beauty
Over the years, Neil Young has been known for either long, drawn out epic album closers (i.e.: Cowgirl In The Sand and Words) or short little ditties that discretely end the albums (a la Cripple Creek Ferry). Natural Beauty is a long (clocking at over ten minutes long) acoustic eco-ballad seemingly recorded live. After some rowdy fan applause, the epic tale begins, with Neil proclaiming that “Natural Beauty should be preserved like a monument” and how the world is going to hell. Great harmonica and words and that still ring true today fill this song and even though it’s extended length can seem like a lot to fill in without numerous distorted guitar solos and thousands of verses, the song barely gets boring, and the album goes out like Rust Never Sleeps, fading out over the sound of the audience applauding, but this time cross-fading into the sound of a cricket chirping, on this Harvest Moon. 5/5