Certain Songs #1284: Neil Young – “Natural Beauty”

Album: Harvest Moon
Year: 1992

Recorded at Portland Auditorium / Broken Arrow Ranch on January 23, 1992

With the basic track recorded live in Portland during the early 1992 tour where Neil previewed the Harvest Moon songs, and overdubs — backing vocals, keyboards, marimbas, rainforest — done at his ranch, “Natural Beauty” stands at the very top of the list of Prettiest Songs Ever Recorded, Neil Young Division.

While I loved nearly all of Harvest Moon, I kept playing it to get to this last song, a long mysterious meditation on the intersection of technology, nature and Neil Young.

On the roller coaster ride
That my emotions have to take me on
I heard a newborn baby cry
Through the night
I heard a perfect echo die
Into an anonymous wall
Of digital sound
Somewhere deep inside
Of my soul

With chord changes reminiscent of “Cortez The Killer” and a lazy, lilting guitar part punctuated by long drifting harmonica solos that you never want to end, “Natural Beauty” takes its time even more so than most Neil Young songs getting to the chorus, but when it does, it’s totally worth it.

A natural beauty should be preserved
Like a monument to nature
Don’t judge yourself too harsh
My love
Or someday you might find
Your soul endangered
A natural beauty should be preserved
Like a monument to nature

With Nicolette Larson (at least) chiming in on the the long, arcing chorus, it’s just insanely lovely to me, and without a doubt, it helped make Harvest Moon my favorite of his acoustic-oriented records, and my favorite of his 1990s albums.

Amazon
You had so much
And now so much is gone
What are you going to do
With your life?
What a lucky man
To see the earth
Before it touched his hand
What an angry fool
To condemn
One more night to go
One more sleep
Upon your burning banks
A greedy man never knows
What he’s done

One thing I can tell you about “Natural Beauty” is that you probably shouldn’t play it on jukebox. Which I did a few times at Lucky Baldwin’s in Pasadena, because its nearly impossible for me to go anywhere that has a jukebox and not play a few songs, though I have a feeling that the trend towards internet-enabled apps to control jukeboxes might cure me of that lifelong affliction.

Anyways, the jukebox at Lucky Baldwin’s has the CD of Harvest Moon, and because “Natural Beauty” is one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite artists, I’ve played it a few times, until I realized that it really doesn’t through the ambience of a pub the way that, say, The Who or The Clash or R.E.M. or The Rolling Stones, and it just kinda gets swallowed up. So I probably won’t be doing that again.

Went to the rodeo today
I saw the cowgirls
Lined up on the fence
A brand new Chevrolet
A brand new pair of seamless pants
We watched the moment of defeat
Played back over on the video screen
Somewhere deep inside
Of my soul

That last verse doesn’t go into a chorus, but instead, one last long harmonica solo, like a boat drifting with the waves, not really knowing where it’s going to end up until the it hits the edge of the rainforest. I didn’t really think about it until just now, but “Natural Beauty” is a definite companion piece to “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)” the electric-guitar-and-harmonies piece that closed Ragged Glory.

Both songs are obviously connected lyrically — Neil’s burgeoning concern about the fate of our planet, which would find even more fruition on records like Greendale, Fork in the Road and The Monsanto Years — but they’re also album-closers that stand slightly apart from the rest of the album while still providing a perfect capper.

“Natural Beauty”

“Natural Beauty” live solo acoustic, 1992

“Natural Beauty” live with Crazy Horse (!), 1996

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