Lately, “Neil Young in the 1970s” is almost interchangeable with the idea of “a consistent decade-long run of classic albums.” Although some will argue for their favorite–often citing After the Gold Rush, Rust Never Sleeps, or On the Beach as the standout–Young’s finest decade is stunning more for its high level consistency than for producing any one album as an encapsulating over-and-done statement. Harvest sees the songwriter at an interesting turning point: its overwhelming commercial success was such a surprise that Young would soon deliberately seek to return to a more authentic rock core, uncomfortable with the exposure of pop stardom.
As such, Harvest’s place in the Neil Young narrative often sees it denigrated by critics as a second-tier, if still classic, release. This is a regrettable if also somewhat understandable development of the artist’s mythos. Often singled out as major lapses in taste, the tracks featuring the London Symphony Orchestra–”A Man Needs a Maid” and “There’s a World”–at first seem out of keeping with what we expect from Young. They don’t support his vocals quite the same way as his tough acoustic guitar chug. But heard from the standpoint of today, these tracks have a strange prescience, reminiscent of Thom Yorke’s high vibrato mixed with orchestral arrangements on both In Rainbows and A Moon Shaped Pool.
Nevertheless, what makes the rest of the album so exceptional is how different it is from these couple of exceptional tracks. Rather, the intimacy and tightness of the arrangements here were at the highest point of development Young would ever achieve and arguably set a high point for pre-Rumours 1970s pop production. Whether it’s the precisely calibrated reverb of the guitar sprawl of “Alabama” or the tight kick of the drum amongst the rustic float of “Out on the Weekend,” the physicality of the sounds on this record always feel right there in an almost synaesthetic way. When we hear the clever double-kick mirror the rhythm of Young singing “she’s so fine, she’s in my mind,” we’re cued to a listening experience which rewards close attention to detail.
Notice the measured contrast of the simple driving rhythm guitar versus the supporting acoustic harmonics and steel slide on “Heart of Gold.” Or hear the expansive effect of the nevertheless taut banjo riffs against the acoustic guitar’s casual dance in “Old Man.” These details, along with the spacious but never overwhelming harmonica work, raise what would have already been great singer-songwriter pieces to sublime levels. Small pleasures at first, but their dependability deepens them and allows their hooks to sink right into your soul.
“The Needle and the Damage Done,” a short burst of searing, melancholy intensity, strips away both electric guitar wash and even fine-grained band accompaniment to reveal the core of what made Young such an impressive performer at his height: it feels like a strong blast of pure blue sadness, coming from somewhere else, with Neil as nothing but the channel. Its this spirit–conveying a sensitivity of consciousness meeting a vividness of experience–which is somehow, miraculously, embodied through a distinct economy of musical expression which sets Harvest apart as one of the essential steps in Young’s development during his golden run.