What Makes Neil Young’s Voice Irresistible

The key to the enduring popularity of his less-than-groundbreaking album Harvest

A young Neil Young lying sideways on a couch surrounded by guitars
Joel Bernstein

The cover of Neil Young’s fourth album, Harvest, is the color of unbleached muslin, lending a mellow vibe to a pleasant, if not groundbreaking, work. Yet as the author Sam Inglis puts it, “Harvest is the only Neil Young album that has found its way into the record collections of people who don’t have record collections.” It was the best-selling album of 1972—and of Young’s career—with four-time platinum sales in the U.S. Its first single, “Heart of Gold,” is his only bona fide hit and quickly became his signature song, a staple of rock and pop radio. Fifty years after Harvest’s arrival, Reprise has put out a deluxe reissue that includes previously unreleased documentary footage.

No one who knows Young’s catalog—40-plus studio albums, with his latest, World Record, released last month—would argue that Harvest is his best. Its wildly uneven, containing at least one earnest but lousy song and a couple of embarrassing experiments in symphonic arrangement. Harvest isn’t a great record; it isn’t even a great Neil Young record. As “Heart of Gold” celebrates its golden anniversary, then, how are we to understand the album’s enduring popularity?

Harvest came together at a particularly tumultuous time for Young. His first marriage had just broken up, and he was enjoying the warm glow of a new relationship with the actor Carrie Snodgress (chronicled in “A Man Needs a Maid,” a delicate gem of a song smothered in the schmaltz of the London Symphony Orchestra). He’d also just lost Crazy Horse, the band with which he’d made his first great record, 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 track “The Needle and the Damage Done,” a reference to the Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, who had developed the heroin habit that would take his life less than a year after Harvest’s release.

Whitten’s addiction prompted Young to start working with new musicians, and he discovered his next collaborators almost accidentally. In February 1971, he had been invited, along with Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, to appear on Johnny Cash’s television show, which was produced in Nashville. While there he met the producer Elliot Mazer, who suggested that Young take advantage of the city’s legendary recording studios to lay down some new tracks. In addition to enlisting Ronstadt and Taylor for backing vocals and other tasks, Young met a team of crack Nashville studio musicians who became the album’s backing band, the Stray Gators.

Harvest’s 10 tracks were recorded across four different spaces in four different cities, providing distinct listening experiences. The loud rockers, “Alabama” and “Words,” were recorded in a barn at Young’s Broken Arrow Ranch, in Northern California. About another of the album’s recording spaces—Barking Town Hall, where Young jammed with the LSO—the less said, the better. One track was brought over from a live performance: Young playing “The Needle and the Damage Done” solo at UCLA’s Royce Hall.

And then there’s the cushiony intimacy of Mazer’s Quadrafonic Sound Studios. As opposed to Young’s barn, “my studio’s good for kind of quiet things, pretty things,” Mazer says in the documentary, Harvest Time, that accompanies the reissued album. The Nashville tracks are perfect but spare. The Gators played with professional restraint, in contrast with Crazy Horse’s amateurish abandon—Young even instructed the drummer, Kenny Buttrey, to play the title track sitting on one hand. And the acoustics of Mazer’s studio were ideally suited to preserving a frail human voice. Young’s is one of the most distinctive instruments in pop music, unpolished in the way that Crazy Horse’s playing was; vulnerable in a way that’s captured in the singing of two younger fans, Cat Power and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.

Whether by choice or happy chance, those pretty things open Harvest and beckon us, from the opening minute of “Out on the Weekend.” Buttrey and the bass player, Tim Drummond, immediately—and seemingly instinctively—create a pocket for the listener to crawl into. Young’s acoustic strumming is easy, not fancy, and his harmonica, when it comes in, rides on top, the perfect instrumental twin of his famously rough-around-the-edges voice. Buttrey and Drummond seem right at home, but Ben Keith makes the most profound mark on the song—perhaps on the album. Keith broke into the business playing pedal steel on Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces”; on Harvest, he complements Young’s voice with yearning fills. This is the first Young album to feature pedal steel, but Keith’s playing became a signature sound on nearly every subsequent record until his death in 2010.

The opening harmonica lick of “Heart of Gold” may be the best-known harp riff in American popular music. I’d argue that Young is a better harmonica player than Dylan (no letters, please!), but he’s not technically adept: It’s an accessible rather than impressive performance, the two repeats between verses embroidering the basic pattern with grace notes and fills. I learned to play harmonica (badly) by imitating Neil Young records, and it’s the first lick that I learned. This is, in part, the importance of Young’s harmonica playing (like Dylan’s): He made many of us believe we could do it.

Likewise, that voice. It’s not phenomenal, but precisely for that reason, it encourages those of us who don’t sing especially well to join in. As he is for many people, Neil Young is an indelible part of my passage into adulthood. I began singing along as a preteen, when my voice was still capable of mirroring his; as a teenager, I permanently compromised my emerging bass-baritone by adopting a falsetto to approximate Neil’s reedy tenor.

In his scathing Rolling Stone review of Harvest, John Mendelsohn had only one nice thing to say—that Young “sings awful pretty.” If you hear that “awful” as an adjective rather than an adverb, it gets at something profound about Young’s voice: It’s (technically) awful but (delicately, vulnerably, humanly) pretty. Perhaps only an oxymoron can convey the appeal of such an unappealing voice. In an era of slick musicianship and studio refinement—whether that’s 1972 or 2022—Harvest represents an attainable ideal of perfection in its very imperfections. A couple of years before punk emerged on the opposite coast, Neil Young brought a DIY aesthetic to American pop, crossed it with backing tracks as smooth as glass, and took it straight to the top of the charts.