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What Makes Neil Young’s Voice Irresistible: Trending News Buzz

His unremarkable album Harvest's prolonged success can be attributed to

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Neil Young’s fourth album, Harvest, has a cover that is the color of unbleached muslin. This gives the work, which is pleasant but not groundbreaking, a laid-back feel. Yet, as the author, Sam Inglis says, “Harvest is the only Neil Young album that people who don’t have record collections have in their collections.” It was the best-selling album of 1972 and of Young’s entire career. In the U.S., it sold four times as many copies as a platinum album. Its first single, “Heart of Gold,” is his only real hit. It became his signature song very quickly and is still played on rock and pop radio. Reprise has released a deluxe reissue of Harvest that includes documentary footage that has never been seen before.

Young has made more than 40 studio albums, and his most recent, World Record, came out last month. No one who knows his work would say that Harvest is his best. It’s all over the place, with at least one sincere but bad song and a couple of embarrassing symphonic experiments. Harvest is not a good album, and it’s not even a good Neil Young album. So, as “Heart of Gold” celebrates its 50th anniversary, how can we explain how popular it has stayed?

Young was going through a lot of trouble when Harvest came together. His first marriage had just ended, and he was enjoying a new relationship with the actor Carrie Snodgress. This story is told in the song “A Man Needs a Maid,” which is a delicate gem covered in schmaltz by the London Symphony Orchestra. He had also just lost Crazy Horse, the band with whom he had made his first great album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. “I hit the city and I lost my band/I watched the needle take another man,” he sings on the Harvest song “The Needle and the Damage Done.” This is a reference to Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, who started using heroin and died less than a year after Harvest came out.

Because Whitten was addicted to drugs, Young had to start working with new musicians. He found his next group of musicians almost by accident. In February 1971, he was asked to appear on Johnny Cash’s TV show, which was made in Nashville, along with Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. While he was there, he met the producer Elliot Mazer, who suggested that Young record some new songs in the famous studios in the city. Young also asked Ronstadt and Taylor to help out with backing vocals and other tasks. He also met the Stray Gators, a group of great Nashville studio musicians who became the album’s backing band.

The 10 songs on Harvest were recorded in four different places in four different cities, so each one sounds different. “Alabama” and “Words” are loud rock songs that were recorded in a barn at Young’s Broken Arrow Ranch in Northern California. About Barking Town Hall, another place where the album was recorded, where Young jammed with the LSO, the less said about it, the better. One track was taken from a live show: Young playing “The Needle and the Damage Done” solo at UCLA’s Royce Hall.

And then there’s Mazer’s Quadrafonic Sound Studios, which have a soft, cosy atmosphere. Mazer says in the documentary Harvest Time that comes with the reissued album that, unlike Young’s barn, his studio is good for “kind of quiet, pretty things.” The songs on Nashville are perfect, but there aren’t many of them. The Gators played with professional restraint, which was different from the recklessness of Crazy Horse. Young even told the drummer, Kenny Buttrey, to play the title track while sitting on one hand. And Mazer’s studio was the perfect place to save a weak human voice because of how it sounded. Young’s guitar is one of the most distinctive in pop music. It’s rough and unpolished, like Crazy Horse’s playing, and it’s also vulnerable, like the way Cat Power and Thom Yorke of Radiohead sing.

From the first minute of “Out on the Weekend,” “Those pretty things” open Harvest and call to us, whether we choose them or they just happen to be there. Buttrey and the bass player, Tim Drummond, make a pocket for the listener right away, and it seems like they do it on purpose. Young’s acoustic strumming is simple and not flashy, and when his harmonica comes in, it rides on top, making it the perfect instrumental match for his famously rough voice. Buttrey and Drummond fit in well, but Ben Keith has the biggest impact on the song, and maybe even on the whole album. Keith got his start in the music business when he played pedal steel on Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces.” On Harvest, he adds yearning fills that go well with Young’s voice. This is Young’s first album with pedal steel, but Keith’s playing became a signature sound on almost all of his other albums until he died in 2010.

“Heart of Gold’s” opening harmonica lick may be the most well-known harp riff in American popular music. I’d say that Young is a better harmonica player than Dylan, but he’s not very good technically: It’s not a very impressive performance, but it’s easy to understand. The two repeats between verses add grace notes and fills to the basic pattern. I learned how to play the harmonica by copying Neil Young’s records, and this was the first thing I learned. Young’s harmonica playing, like Dylan’s, was important in part because he made many of us think we could do it.

In the same way, that voice. It’s not amazing, but because it’s not, those of us who don’t sing very well are more likely to join in. Neil Young is a big part of my coming of age, as he is for many other people. I started singing along when I was a preteen and my voice could still sound like Neil’s. When I was a teenager, I used a falsetto to sound like Neil’s reedy tenor, which ruined my developing bass-baritone voice for good.

In his terrible review of Harvest for Rolling Stone, John Mendelsohn said that Young “sings awful pretty.” If you hear “awful” as a noun instead of an adverb, it reveals something deep about Young’s voice: It’s bad in a technical sense, but it’s pretty in a human way. Maybe an oxymoron is the only way to describe how appealing a voice like that is. In an era of slick musicianship and studio refinement, like 1972 or 2022, Harvest is a perfect example of a goal that can be reached because of its flaws. A couple of years before punk started on the other coast, Neil Young brought a DIY style to American pop, crossed it with backing tracks as smooth as glass, and took it straight to the top of the charts.

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