At the end of this, five’ll getcha ten, most of you are going to be exclaiming lividly, “O what vile geeks are rock critics! How quick are they to heap disapproval on one whose praises they once sang stridently at the first sign of us Common Folk taking him to heart en masse! How they revel in detesting that which we adore!” However often I might second with a hearty “right on!” such a perception of the critic/audience chasm, though, I will swear under oath before the highest court in the land that such an exclamation is far from apt in the case of a displeased review of Neil Young’s Harvest.
Different folks, it must be seen, respond to overwhelming mass acceptance with different strokes. While some respond to commercial prosperity as a means to realizing all those brainstorms that a lack of loot formerly made impossible, to expanding and growing as an artist through the exploitation to heretofore unattainable resources, others either wilt artistically in the face of a mass audience’s expectations — resorting to conscious imitations of what was once instinctive and spontaneous — or greatly relax the standards by which they once judged themselves, having concluded (usually quite correctly) that once one attains superstar status the audience will eagerly gobble up whatever half-assed baloney he pleases to record.
On the basis of the vast inferiority relative to his altogether spectacular Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere of the two albums he’s made since teaming up with Crosby, Etc. (and thus insuring that he’d never again want for an audience), it can only be concluded that Neil Young is not one of those folks whom superstardom becomes artistically.
Harvest, a painfully long year-plus in the making (or, seemingly more aptly, assembling), finds Neil Young invoking most of the L.A. variety of superstardom’s weariest cliches in an attempt to obscure his inability to do a good imitation of his earlier self.
Witness, for example, the discomfortingly unmistakable resemblance of nearly every song on this album to an earlier Young composition — it’s as if he just added a steel guitar and new words to After The Gold Rush. Witness his use of said steel guitar to create a Western ambience worlds less distinctive than that conjured in earlier days by his own vibratodrenched lead guitar.
Witness, in fact, that he’s all but abdicated his position as an authoritative rock-and-roller for the stereotypical laid-back country-comforted troubadour role, seldom playing electric guitar at all any more, and then with none of the spellbinding economy and spine-tingling emotiveness that characterized his playing with Crazy Horse. Indeed, his only extended solo on the album, in “Words,” is fumbling and clumsy, even embarrassing.
Neil’s Nashville backing band, the Stray Gators, pale miserably in comparison to the memory of Crazy Horse, of whose style they do a flaccid imitation on such tracks as “Out On The Weekend,” “Harvest,” and “Heart of Gold.” Where the Crazies kept their accompaniment hypnotically simple with a specific effect in mind (to render most dramatic rhythmic accents during choruses and instrumental breaks), the Gators come across as only timid, restrained for restraint’s sake, and ultimately monotonous.
With that going on behind him, Neil’s lyrics dominate the listener’s attention far more than befit them. Neil’s verbal resources have always been limited, but before now he’s nearly always managed to come up with enough strong, evocative lines both to keep the listener’s attention away from the banality of those by which they’re surrounded and to supply the listener with a vivid enough impression of what a song is about to prevent his becoming frustrated by its seemingly deliberate obscurity and skeletal incompleteness. In his best work, as in Everybody Knows, wherein Crazy Horse’s heavy, sinister accompaniment made unmistakable the message (of desperation begetting brutal vindictiveness) which the almost impenetrably subjective words hinted at only broadly, the basic sound of a song further vivified what lyric fragments suggested.
Here, with the music making little impression, the words stand or fall on their own, ultimately falling as a result of their extremely low incidence of inspiration and high incidence of rhyme-scheme-forced silliness. A couple are even slightly offensive — “The Needle And The Damage Done,” is glib, even cute, and displays little real commitment to its subject, while “There’s A World” is simply flatulent and portentuous nonsense. Only “A Man Needs A Maid,” in which Neil treats his favorite theme — his inability to find and keep a lover — in a novel and arrestingly brazen (in terms of our society’s accelerating consciousness of women’s rights) manner, is particularly interesting — nearly everything else being limitlessly ponderable, but in a scant, oblique way that offers few rewards to the ponderer.
It might be noted (with remorse) that neither of the symphony-orchestrated tunes of Harvest even approaches “Expecting To Fly,” from 1967, in terms of production or over-all emotional power. Would that the two unreleased movements of that earlier masterpiece, originally conceived as a trilogy, been given the grooves used for “Maid” and “There’s A World.” (Apologies if “The Emperor of Wyoming” or “String Quartet From Whiskey Boot Hill,” from Neil Young, or “Broken Arrow” are in fact the missing two-thirds).
“Alabama” aspires to the identical effect of “Southern Man” but contains nothing nearly so powerful as that Gold Rush song’s “I heard screamin’ and bullwhips crackin’,” followed by a vicious slash of Danny Whitten’s rhythm guitar and a stinging lead line from Neil. “Old Man’s” first line promises a lot more than the song ever delivers in terms of compassionate perception. “Heart of Gold’s” basic conceit would be laughed off the airwaves coming from another solo troubadour. “Are You Ready For The Country,” like “Cripple Creek Ferry,” seems an in-joke throwaway intended for the amusement of certain of Neil’s superstar pals. The title tune is lyrically cluttered and oblique, and “Out on The Weekend” is puerile, precious, and self-indulgent, not to mention musically insipid.
Truth be told, I listened to the entirety of Harvest no less than a dozen times before touching typewriter to paper, ultimately managing to come with only one happy thing to say about it: Neil Young still sings awful pretty, and often even touchingly. For the most part, though, he’s seemingly lost sight of what once made his music uniquely compelling and evocative and become just another pretty-singing solo superstar.
Which can’t help but bring me down.