Missed opportunities, an aching heart, the hope of a better tomorrow: all are well-worn tropes in the best of every genre. Considering most modern music stems (at least to some degree) from the slave spirituals of early America, it’s easy to see how this breed of melancholy and positivity, when crafted and executed well, reaches a deep part of the listener’s soul. I believe Neil Young, one of the greatest musicians of ours or any other time, tapped into that pain and muted optimism with his magnum opus (and one of my personal favorites): the 1971 album Harvest.
Young’s talent as a musician had been well-documented long before Harvest, what with his collaborations with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash; but they, along with many other songwriters from the 60s-70s, tended to err on the side of exuberance and a broader theme of peace and togetherness. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with preaching happiness to all people, but rock and country especially had begun losing the bluesy influence that launched their respective genres into the mainstream. Young, along with fellow pioneer of tragedy Joni Mitchell, gave a more reflective and nuanced look at the individual, the nation, and most importantly, ourselves.
Opening up on an album or any extended art form can be liberating for an artist, but the finished product sometimes suffers as a result of seeming either too over-indulgent or manufactured. Young walks this line masterfully, allowing a palatable feeling of understated remorse to flow through each song, giving them a life independent of the track’s actual subject. “The Needle and the Damage Done,” for example, is one of the most jarring and heartbreaking anti-drug songs ever written thanks to its simple structure and easy empathetic ties. The subject could be your neighbor, your brother, your friend–the voice of reason at the end could just as likely be you, pleading with a loved one to quit their destructive habit as uselessly as trying to stop the sun from setting.
Each song is clearly crafted with a great deal of care, but the stripped down instrumentals and matter-of-fact lyrics give the impression of a guy playing guitar for no one in particular at a roadside tavern. Every time I listen to Harvest I can feel the wood and brush of the country, smell the fire burning and the cold of winter’s approach. It gets the listener into a very specific mindset: namely, that of someone with too much on their mind.
The way tracks like “A Man Needs a Maid” and “Out on the Weekend” deal with relatively simple topics (getting married and going out, respectively) and infuse them with a legacy and winding thoughts spiraling from the center gives the impression of a greater world inside a much smaller one. The weight and implications of every decision Young must face in Harvest allows the audience to adopt a scope towards something as minute as heading into town with some friends, turning it into a deep reflection of what his love must be thinking about and the life he left behind. This reverence towards the details of living makes songs dealing with broader themes seem all the more important: “Heart of Gold” is about Young’s search for peace and altruism amidst a muddled life, while “Old Man” is a direct reflection on mortality and the regret of an unfulfilled existence.
The beauty of Harvest lies primarily in its simplicity. There isn’t a single overarching story, but rather vignettes that tackle different topics, treating each one with immense respect no matter how trivial they may seem. It’s an important contrast to other “confessional” albums and songs, which often come off as whiny or too specific. Young made me appreciate life more by presenting a patient, contemplative outlet through which to gaze at the overwhelming misery of the world. Harvest taught me that the harvest moon, harbinger of cold after the bounty of summer, can still shine brightly for all under its shadow.