Quarantining The Past: Neil Young’s ‘Harvest Moon’

    At this point, it’s well understood that there’s no clear line through Neil Young’s discography. Things jump around on a whim, from band to band and genre to genre — particularly once we hit the ’80s — and his long list of albums has as many occasions of frustration as it does excellence. Now he’s back with a new album with Crazy Horse, Americana, that reshapes some public domain songs into the band’s usual rollicking guitar jams. It’s an interesting, and sometimes great, set of tunes, and it’s also an album that points to one-half of Young’s longterm approach.

    To look over his discography is to see him vacillate between looking back (as he does on Americana) and looking forward, at least in the way that cottoning onto new trends constitutes moving forward. The new wave leanings of 1981’s Re-ac-tor, the notorious vocoder-jams of 1982’s Trans, and the odd drum production of 1986’s Landing On Water show Young in short-term fascination mode. At other points, on the the stubborn rockabilly of 1983’s Everybody’s Rockin’ or the straight-up country of 1985’s Old Ways, Young is looking back at long established traditions. Sometimes he even looks back at his own history on albums like 1980’s Hawks & Doves, the first have of which is literally from the past, culled from various recordings in the ’70s, while the second half were all new tunes.

    1992’s Harvest Moon is an interesting mix of both musical and personal history. For many, it’s considered a quasi-sequel to Young’s 1972 major-hit album Harvest. It does use many of the same players, but though the title and players make it unlikely that Young wasn’t waxing nostalgic about Harvest, he seems more interested in capturing a new kind of lightning with these musicians than bottling the same one again. It’s also an album that comes at a curious time in his career. Young spent the late-80’s and  early-’90s getting back on track after his all-over-the-place output of the previous decade, and found success in the expansive gem that was 1989’s Freedom and then he and Crazy Horse got back together for the blistering guitar album Ragged Glory, a huge, loud rock record from beginning to end. That and the tour that followed were wildly successful, but the decibels were high in those shows, and Young was hit with a major case of tinnitus.

    Hence the hushed country shuffle of Harvest Moon. Where today he uses Crazy Horse to look back, in 1992 he left them behind and brought in classic players like Spooner Oldham, Ben Keith, and Tim Drummond — not to mention back-up singing from the likes of James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt — to finally make his country album. This isn’t the dusty leanings of Harvest, this is full-on Nashville, and while it’s not Young’s first attempt at this kind of country record — see Old Ways — it is far and away his most successful, and one of the finest records of his career.

    It’s an album that deals in its own kind of space and nostalgia, the characters often looking back while they press forward. The music itself has the expanse of the “desert highway” Young sings about on opener “Unknown Legend.” From the ringing lead hook on that song to the echoed harmonica on “From Hank to Hendrix” to the wistful backing vocals on “One of These Days,” the album counters Ragged Glory‘s shredding size with its own sense of space and pacing. These songs stretch out, but they do so quietly, their power coming in the beauty of a harmony, the sweet melt of a pedal steel. And even Young’s voice, which isn’t always what you’d call traditionally beautiful, shines here. His high keen is in fine form, knocking out the high-register pining of “Harvest Moon” and the gentle rise and fall on “Natural Beauty,” the live cut that closes the record.

    The narrators in the songs themselves are also taking stock of the past, or reveling in it, the way Young does on Harvest Moon. On the title track, a great paean to long-lasting love, the lovers want to dream all night, “just like children sleeping.” On opener “Unknown Legend,” when Young tells us of the girl that “used to work in a diner,” we know already she is long gone before we see her “long blond hair flying in the wind.” If that song seems like a story, with fictional characters pulled from the long tradition of American music (the waitress, the elusive girl, the open road), then “One of These Days” is a much more personal past. It expresses both a love for old friends and for the music he was raised on.

    The odd thing is that, in the song, he claims he’s going “sit down and write a long letter.” But Harvest Moon is that letter. If it looks back, it never does so in bitterness or anger or any all-encompassing kind of regret. There’s a hard-earned satisfaction to these songs, and it dovetails the personal with the musical. If Young has gone all over the musical map in his career, he rarely feels at home as he does on this record. It’s a curious but perfect choice that the album ends with the long live cut “Natural Beauty.” The recording is solid but not quite as clear as the album, you can’t hear the clear, warm glow of Spooner Oldham’s keys, there’s no pedal steel. It’s also far and away the longest song here, it’s length bringing to mind the long jams of Ragged Glory, even if he sticks to acoustic storytelling here. 

    What we get at the end of Harvest Moon is an of-the-moment document of how everyone from Hank to Hendrix, of how all those friends in “One of These Days,” and even of the imagined, romantic characters like the waitress in that diner, how they all shape Young as a musician. If, back in 1972, Harvest was a clear assertion of who Young could be, how strong his talent was (even after great albums Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and After the Gold Rush), the Harvest Moon is about who he has become. Under any vocoder or crashing electro-drums, whether he’s back by these players or Crazy Horse or Pearl Jam (which he would do later in the ’90s), Young is a singer-songwriter, one as enamored with the space of his homeland Canada as he is with the traditions of American music. Those two things come shining through perfectly on Harvest Moon, and they help us make a distinction between Young as a musician and Young as an artist. As an artist, he’s prone to flights of fancy. He can’t sit still and bravely risks failure to try something new. But Neil Young the musician? He just loves a good song, and some great friends to play it with. This album gives us the best picture of that, not of what Young chooses to play but of what, under it all, he has to play. These are the traditions that drive him. So, no, Harvest Moon is not a sequel to the best-selling Harvest, but it may be the better record of the two.