Neil Young: Mr. Soul

Just in time for the onset of autumn in Texas, Phantom Cosmonaut brings us a reminder of the genius that is Neil Young’s Harvest.

Every successful artist releases an album that goes on to define their career. Albums that prove to be major critical and commercial successes often haunt an artist for the remainder of their career. Springsteen has Born to Run, Led Zeppelin has Led Zeppelin 4, and Bob Dylan has Blonde on Blonde.

Neil Young’s breakout album is undeniably Harvest, released  in 1972 on Reprise Records. Harvest is Neil Young’s only number 1 album, as well as yielding his only number 1 single with “Heart of Gold.” The album was largely recorded in Nashville with the aid of studio musicians, with additional backing vocals by the likes of Linda Ronstant and James Taylor. Often sparse and pastoral, Harvest is autumnal in its tone and mellow in delivery, with the solemn sounds of pedal steel perfectly enhancing and often accompanying Young’s high plaintive cracked tenor.

So what makes a great vocalist/singer? Is it technical ability, and perfect pitch? Is it personality, as well as a uniqueness that bears no resemblance to others? One would argue that the former is most important; however I generally favor the latter.  Moreover, I am fond of cracked, vulnerable and reedy vocals, which perfectly describes Young’s vocals ( I can listen to Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen all day, 5 minutes of Celine Dion and I already have the noose up and ready to go). Harvest is arguably Neil Young’s best vocal performance. Take the soul-searching balled “Heart of Gold,” Young’s vocals are yearning, oddly warm, soulful and affecting. On “The Needle and the Damage Done”, Young’s vocals are lonesome, hushed and melancholic.

Just like every household filled with non-music fans or casual fans of 70’s rock owns a copy of Dark Side of the Moon, they undoubtedly own a copy of Harvest. Country Rock during the early 70’s was still in its infancy stages as a genre. As a genre that spawned the likes of The Eagles, Poco, Emmylou Harris, The Band, and spearhead by Floridian wonder boy Gram Parsons, Country-Rock was a hugely successful genre during the 70s.

Neil Young would never renounce or distance himself from the genre tag, however he would go on to release more challenging albums such as On The Beach and Tonight’s the Night, and would go on to release the largely country-inspired Comes a Time In 1978, that yielded the hit single “Lotta Love” and fan favorites such as “Motorcycle Mama” and the title track “Comes a Time”. Young would frequently revisit the Country-Rock genre throughout his career, most recently with 2005s Prairie Wind.

Often it takes an outsider to put a fresh spin and perspective on American genres such as Country, R&B and Rock ‘N’ Roll. It took a Canadian by way of Neil Young to re-define the singer/songwriter during the 70s. Young as a youth was highly influenced by the High Lonesome sounds of Hank Williams, as well as the pop and rock sounds of Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. It was these sounds that were transported over the plains and into his transistor radio during his youth in Ontario, Canada that would shape Young as an artist.

When we describe Young’s songwriting, we describe a beautiful simplicity.   It’s this beautiful simplicity that has attracted millions to Harvest. Young often uses sparse arrangements, simplistic chord structures and employs non-virtuoso musicians preferring feel and passion over technical proficiency. Crazy Horse, Young’s long standing backing band, is a garage band, a rollicking backing band that is able to match the passion and intensity of Young’s often intense and lengthy rock exercises.

On Harvest and Harvest Moon, the Crazy Horse guys are all but non-existent. Just like Springsteen has the E Street band, Springsteen often savors the moment(s) of recording alone, or with a no-strings-attached group of backing musicians. One could split Neil Young down the middle, by using his moniker Shakey to describe his Rock ‘N” Roll side and Mr. Soul to describe his more pastoral and gentle moments.

It would take 20 years for Young to follow up Harvest with Harvest Moon in 1992, which featured the same backing band of musicians that appeared on Harvest. Harvest Moon is affecting in the same sense that Harvest is affecting, with ballads about missed opportunity, Track 2 “From Hank to Hendrix”,  and settling down or just settling, Track 1 “Unknown Legend”. In the 2008 film Rachel Getting Married, “Unknown Legend” is sung a cappella by TV on The Radio’s lead vocalist Tunde Adebimpe, lending a joyful yet bittersweet moment to the scene.

To label Young a horrible vocalist and wayward musician is to miss the point of his genius. Neil Young is a one-off; an artist that evokes so much emotion with his simplistic-seeming songwriting that he is now a part of the American, Canadian, and hell the whole world’s lexicon. Young sings the soundtrack of our lives, providing ample wedding songs, breakup songs and war anthems. He appeals to the everyman and the down trodden, to the intellectual as well as the simple man. So now that is autumn is here, how ‘bout another spin of Harvest. I know I will be.

Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were ~ Old Man

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