Album Review: Neil Young, "Harvest"

In 1972, a strange thing happened: Americans, a people who up until that time had thought of themselves as a collective John Wayne, almost turned into Canadians. They proved this by making Harvest, by keening-voiced, Canuck country-rock troubadour Neil Young, the number one album of the year.

A maudlin, wistful, lamenting collection of songs wrapped in softly-bashed strings, wheezy harmonica, and the noodlings of the London Symphony Orchestra, it cast a wistful glance back towards a simpler, less worldly, more 'local' and peaceful time in American history/myth; the musical manifestation of a bruised n' tearful, continent-straddling nation in retreat from the big, bad world – in other words 'Canada.'

Ho Chi Minh doesn't appear on the credits, but this album, or at least its success - and indeed the entire success of the whole 1970s country rock genre - should be credited to the diminutive but formidable leader of the Viets, the people most responsible for getting Americans into that mawkish mood where Young's wailing threnody was pop gold. Harvest is the sound of a hegemon with its ass whupped and its tail between its legs (with a consequent rise in pitch).

What is Canada but a China-sized nation with the global balls profile of a Scandinavian statelet? That is exactly what Neil-Young-loving America was spiritually reduced to by 1972. To a certain extent Young's career can be used as an inverse indicator of American mojo, with sales holding up pretty well through the Carter years then nosediving during Reagan's tenure before picking up in the early 90s when a new, wimpy, introspective slacker mentality was in the ascendant.

A loss of mojo is also a loss of sexual aggression and confidence. This is clearly evinced in the lyrics of A Man Needs A Maid, where Young wails:

"I was thinking that maybe I'd get a maid
Find a place nearby for her to stay
Just someone to keep my house clean fix my meals and go away."
This shows desexualization and even infantilization, with the narrator being merely fed by the female. One almost imagines Young curled up in a fetus position as his dumbfounded maid is required to spoon feed him.

Other songs speak of senility as in the album's stand out track, the shuddering acoustic shuffle of Heart of Gold, where he wails about growing old as an asthmatic harmonica kicks in to symbolize his reduced capacity to process oxygen. The identification with senility continues in Old Man, where he trills "Old man look at my life/ I'm a lot like you." The infantilization of A Man Needs A Maid has now become a second childhood. Either way what he needs is a nurse not a woman.

The loose, slow-moving music (the typical sound of country rock) combined with Young's high, floating voice (hinting at disembodiment) create a mood of lethargy and tiredness. But this album also has an undertone of renewal and rejuvenation. But where is this supposed to happen? The declared answer is in the country, but there remains a deep ambivalence. The distorted hilly billy Blues of Are You Ready For the Country? with its ironic piano punctuation and mocking slide guitar interjections creates a disparaging mood about the supposed solution. This was perhaps a logical progression from the unworkable, dreamy-eyed, hippy idealism of Woodstock, a Joni Mitchell song covered by Young with Crosby Stills and Nash, with its starchild lyrics:

"Got to get back to the land
and set my soul free
We are stardust
We are golden
We are billion year old carbon
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden."
Yeh, right!

For America's 1970s country-rock glitterati cooped up in their Hollywood boltholes, the country was what it was for America's other liberal elites – a zone of gap-toothed rednecks to be flown over in the same way that Vietnam was (but without the napalm!). Much better to linger on the California shore, with their feet dipped in the gentle waves of karma washing in from across the Pacific.

The Revenge of Riff Raff
23rd August, 2013

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