War is the third album by a band that was, at the time, young and raw and hungry, and it opens with the words “I can’t believe the news today/I can’t close my eyes and make it go away”. Harvest Moon is the 20th studio album from an established legend with nothing to prove and opens with the words “She used to work in a diner/never saw a woman look finer”. That pretty much tells you everything you need to know about this battle: youthful outrage trying to change the word versus aging comfort contentedly observing it.
In a post-U2 360 world, it’s hard to believe there was a time when U2 were young and raw and hungry – and Bono had a last name (Vox, in case you’re wondering) – but that’s how it was when the band got down to business in the fall of 1982 to record what was a “do or die” album after the sophomore slump of October.
They went with “do” in a big way. While even better things were still to come, War let the world know this was a serious band with something to say and a desire to say it with stadium-sized anthems. A concept album of sorts, most of the songs are about the horrors of, you guessed it, war, and it’s great. It rocks and it preaches with the spirit of kids who believe that music can change the course of history. Of course we’ve all heard “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, “New Year’s Day”, “Two Hearts Beat as One”, and “40” enough times for them to be seared onto our brains, but every other song is pretty much just as good. I especially like “Seconds” – an oddball track that juxtaposes a playful beat and melody with a dark warning about nuclear war.
The whole band sounds energized but let’s give a special shout-out to the rhythm section, and particularly drummer Larry Mullen Jr. who, from the military march of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to the rave-up ending of “Like a Song”, sounds like he’s banging his kit to save his life.
Neil Young had no such anxiety or eagerness to please when he called forth his crew of perfect country-rock session players (also known as the Stray Gators) and choir of big-name back-up singers (Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Nicolette Larson), and ushered them back into the studio to make a sequel to his biggest-selling album – 1972’s Harvest.
The result, I would argue, is quite possibly better than Harvest. At its best, Harvest Moon is unbeatable. “Harvest Moon”, “From Hank to Hendrix” and “Unknown Legend” are absolutely marvelous (side note: you have to love how director Jonathan Demme used “Unknown Legend” in Rachel Getting Married). Like Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, it’s the kind of album you can put on in any situation and everyone in earshot will be glad you did – though you’d be well advised to skip the nauseating treacle of “Such a Woman”, as well as “Old King”, a goofy tribute to a dog he admits to kicking once. No one needs the line: “But that hound dog is his..tor..eeeeee.”
Overall, this battle is close but since we’re talking about rock n’ roll let’s go with youthful outrage over aging comfort.
WINNER: U2, War (2 points)
Next week’s battle – #39: ZZ Top, ‘Eliminator’ (1983) vs. My Bloody Valentine, ‘Loveless’