It's a good album, but not a great one, not as strong as either the one that preceded it or followed it, and if not for its commercial success would probably be regarded as one of his lesser efforts from the era. However, its sales alone make it an essential piece of the Neil Young canon (it's the subject of a 331/3 volume), and it demands scrutiny.
The standard tale of the album's circumstances is that Young threw out his back and recorded the album wearing a brace, leaving him unable to play the electric guitar and creating the album's downtempo vibe by necessity. Though the story is undermined by the back cover photo of a studio session that shows Young upright and plugged in, the relaxed nature of most of the tracks lends it some credence. But the band is probably just as responsible for the mellow mood. Unlike After the Gold Rush, on which Young relied on a rotating cast of session players, for Harvest he hastily assembled yet another backing band, this one dubbed the Stray Gators.
The problem is that much of the album is too mellow, both in the performance and the relatively unchallenging songwriting. Side one, in particular, is dominated by songs so slow the band sounds as thought they may fall asleep midway through. There are some strong melodies, most notably the title track and "Heart Of Gold", but only Ben Kieth's tasty slide work saves the side-closing "Are You Ready For the Country?" (a live staple for years to come, and a good one I might add) from complete torpor.
Worse, the flow is broken up in the middle by "A Man Needs a Maid", the triumphant return of Jack Nitzsche's orchestral charts. Recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, the performance is beautiful and the lyrics painfully honest, but the song is flawed. For one thing, the parts don't quite fit together melodically; Young seems to have taken pieces from several work-in-progress songs and tacked them on as bridges. For another, the production is woefully overblown. Whereas on "Expecting To Fly" Nitzsche tastefully underscored Young's song with subtle touches, "Maid" is the sound of Nitzsche's ego run amok.
But it's the very sound of restraint compared to the album's second LSO collaboration. While side two of Harvest breaks out of the monotony of the first side, it's marred by "There's a World", with its portentous kettle drums and harp swirls.
The rest of the side is certainly an improvement over the first. It opens with "Old Man", one of Young's most affecting meditations on aging. Near the end, Young goes it alone for the spare, aching "The Needle and the Damage Done", a desperate plea to Crazy Horse bandmate and friend Danny Whitten to escape his crushing addiction to heroin. Contrary to popular belief, the song is not a memorial; it was written and recorded before Whitten's overdose less than a year later.
Young breaks out the electric and the band picks up the pace toward the album's close. The closer, "Words", is a fine song, but the band meanders, and, unlike the rave-ups on Gold Rush, the performance lacks direction towards the end. It's a big part of the reason Harvest is Exhibit A for anyone arguing that Young isn't half as good without Crazy Horse (untrue, by the way).
The biggest problem with Harvest, ironically for an album so subdued, might be Young's ego. With Gold Rush, Young had proved he could piece together a great album without the help of a steady backing line-up or single producer. Harvest credits three production teams and was recorded at four different locations, and the results betray the scattershot approach with their overall inconsistency.
Given that Harvest has fewer highlights than other Young albums of the period but, due to its commercial stature, has been picked dry for compilations, finding a lesser-known gem is tough. Decade features five of the album's ten tracks, and the shorter Greatest Hits includes three (all overlapping). So I went with "Alabama", one of the electric numbers on side two. The song continues Young's obsession with Americana, lamenting the burden of shameful history in an extension of the previous album's "Southern Man".
From my deck to you: Neil Young -