Neil Young’s “Harvest”

Album cover for Harvest by Neil Young

I’ve been listening to Neil Young‘s fourth album “Harvest” from 1972, this week. Last year. I spent a week with his third album “After the Gold Rush” from 1970. The two albums differ little in sound and composition style making them almost feel like two parts of a double-LP. Those songs where he does venture beyond the folk country-rock prove to be the weakest tracks; The unnecessarily cinematic “A Man Needs a Maid” and the dramatically orchestral “There’s a World” impress with their aspirations, but fail to actually be enjoyable songs. “A Man Needs a Maid” features some of Young’s best singing and a great melody. A stripped down version proves to be much better.

Old Man

I had difficulty choosing between “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold.” Ultimately, I decided to focus on “Old Man.” “Heart of Gold” provides a great example of Young’s country-rock style. “Old Man” intrigues me far more from a songwriting perspective.

The chord progressions is.. well, strange. From what I can gather, Young and band perform the song in the key of D major, with frequent dips into D minor and maybe G major. I do not believe rock musicians discuss theory to this extent; while they understand theory, they probably played what sounded right for the song.

For the verses, the chords are mostly D-F-C-G. In the key of D, that’s I-II#-VI#-IV. In the key of D minor, that’s I-III-VI-IV. In the key of G, that’s V-VI#-IV-I. With all of this potentially borrowing of chords, I try to follow the feel of the melody and other instruments to determine what feels like the tonic. The proves elusive too. Therefore, I assume we have frequent key changes. The verses open in D major, shift to D minor, and return to D major. That makes it I-III-VII-IV, with middle to chords in the relative minor key. The chorus in that case, following III7-I, started in D minor but focuses on D major.

All this modulating combined with Young’s unique singing voices gives the song a pensive and unresolved eerie feeling. That works well for the contemplative lyrics. The speaker talks to an old man, inspired by a conversation Young had with the caretaker of a house he’d recently bought. He shares that while they may have had different lives, they really aren’t that different from each other. At their hearts, what they need is love. There’s not a consistent rhyme scheme from one verse to the next, but the lines do rhyme. Most frequently, there’s internal rhymes with single lines.

Old man, look at my life
Twenty-four, and there’s so much more
Live alone in a paradise
That makes me think of two
Love lost, such a cost
Give me things that don’t get lost
Like a coin that won’t get tossed
Rolling home to you

The Needle and the Damage Done

Young again defies the constraints of key in “The Needle and the Damage Done.” They used a live recording featuring only vocals and guitar for the album track. The audience remains attentively quiet through the performance. This delicately pensive pained song bemoans the heroin addiction and its consequences. He picks dancing arpeggios throughout the song, like trills over the chord’s root note.

The song is mostly in the key of D, but borrows chords frequently. There is no chorus here, but rather a series of short two-line verses followed by a one-line refrain.; though its not a strict refrain, as the lyrics vary considerably. The first and second lines rhyme

Also, where most songs return to the tonic at the end of the refrain, Young ends on a major supertonic. This complete lack of resoluton makes that major chord feel lost and longing. This provides subtle emotional impact, supporting the lyrics. The chord progression for verses is an unusual I-VI#-VIX9-IV-iv-V#-VI#-IIIb-IIsus-II. With all these borrowed chords, I can’t for certain pin down the key; However, listening to the melody, I believe I have identified it correctly.

I hit the city and I lost my band
I watched the needle take another man
Gone, gone, the damage done

Words (Between the Lines of Age)

The song “Words (Between the Lines of Age” closes the album. Former Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young band members Stephen Stills and Graham Nash provide backing vocals. The band repeat the same i-V-VI-i chord progression throughout, at slow churning tempo around 45 BPM. We hear Young’s characteristic overdriven guitar playing rhythm in the left channel and leads in the right. There is a great sense of the room in the recording, which helps the overdubs to sound like they were live.

The verses consist of three sets of couplets, with some internal slant rhymes. The chorus completes the verses, making it more of a traditional refrain. This refrain is basically the same line twice. These lines seems like a prophetic dream, with the speaker being visited first by gift-givers and then imagining another life. What’s he talking about, I don’t know. But it sounds good.

If I was a junkman selling you cars
Washing your windows and shining your stars
Thinking your mind was my own in a dream
What would you wonder? And how would it seem?
Living in castles a bit at a time
The King started laughing and talking in rhyme
Singing words, words between the lines of age
Words, words between the lines of age

Bob Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home”

Album cover for Bringing It All Back Home

For this week, I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan’s fifth album “Bringing It All Back Home” from 1965. He had been listening to rock music and visiting with The Beatles. The first side of this record, an electric band backs Dylan; while the second side remains acoustic and without drums. “Bringing It All Back Home” came out in March with “Highway 61 Revisited” following just five months later.

Between these two album, Dylan infamously performed at the Newport Folk Music Festival with electric instruments. The folk music crowd expressed disgust immediately; they wanted the old Dylan back, not this traitor to folk music. Considering “Highway 61 Revisited” introduced me to Dylan in the early 1990s, the shift from acoustic folk to folk with electric seems rather quaint to me. Granted, he did perform this (what we could call) stunt at a festival for folk music. I also feel that while electric guitars are being used, there’s still plenty of acoustic guitar, and the songwriting is still deeply rooted in folk.

Subterranean Homesick Blues

The album opens with acoustic guitar strumming, then an electric guitar plays an upward glissando to get the motor started. These guitars are joined by two basses, a second electric guitar and drums. The songs rolls at a determined pace. The bass pounds on down-beat, the guitars jangling and improvising driving of the accompaniment along like a full-steam jugband. The chord progression follows a vaguely blues pattern: I7-I7-I7-I7-IV7-I7-I7-V7-I7-I7-I7, which is an unusual 11 bars.

Almost immediately, Dylan’s vocals launch into a continuous stream of lyrics with a paranoid cutup of the sociopolitical climate. Lyrics like these undoubtedly had influence on many later musicians like Beck, whose “Loser” immediately earned him Dylan comparisons in the 1990s. The promotional film with lyrics on cards has been imitated countless times.

He takes brief breaks between verses to play the harmonica. One wonders his lung capacity, especially since he was a considerable smoker at the time. Each verse has 17 short lines run together in an almost monotonous rhythm. The famous opening line tells us where the song is headed immediately:

Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the government

And of course the song ends with one of the most memorable lines, by anybody: “The pump don’t work, ‘cuz the vandals took the handles.” This rhymes with the earlier lines “Don’t wear sandals, Try to avoid the scandals.” This nonsense set of admonitions about keeping in line remind me also of Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier.” Seems like the vandals might be having more fun, even if they’ve ruined our chances of using the pump, which I assume to be a water pump, but maybe it’s gasoline?

Love Minus Zero/No Limit

This week introduced me to the song “Love Minus Zero,” which I don’t believe I’ve heard before. I hear roots of some of the songs on the Velvet Underground’s debut album here. The song features acoustic guitars, a clean electric guitar, bass guitar, and drums. The performance and chord progression give the song a ballad feel. Like a repeating cycle telling a tale, or in this case, perhaps, more a vignette. He sings about his love, but in praising her qualities he also implies criticism of society in general.

In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall
Some speak of the future
My love she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all

Mr. Tambourine Man

At this point, I’m more familiar with the Dylan version, but I knew the Byrd’s recording of “Mr. Tambourine” first. It definitely has more of the rectangle eye-glasses psychedelic feel than the original. I’ve also enjoyed William Shatner’s unique kitschy take, which sounds like it was recorded in front of Laugh-In’s joke wall. “

Many have covered “Mr. Tambourine Man.”: The song even became subject of literary interpretation in the movie “Dangerous Minds” from 1995. I admit I’ve never seen the full movie, but I have seen that clip. In the scene, the teacher suggests that the titular Mr. Tambourine Man is a drug dealer. This is a common, and commonly disputed, interpretation. It’s not difficult to see the possibility, and it’s certainly difficult to unsee it. We cannot trust Dylan to talk about his songs either.

Dylan plays the song in the key of D, which I think tends to sound ballady or jangly. I like that the song break into a chorus which start with the dominant (V) chord of G, rather than the typical tonic(D). Dylan’s voice jump directly into the opening “Hey!”; He sounds caught in the middle of a melody and he’s grabbing the listener into it.

The chord progression for the chorus is V-IV-I-V-I-V-IV-IV for the first two lines, which is unresolved. That resolution to the tonic comes at the end of the last two lines of the chorus. Those last two lines follow the same progression, except finish with the tonic D chord instead of extending the subdominant A.

The verses repeat a similar pattern, though Dylan sings the verses a little lower and more restrained than the chorus. Here the verses repeat the V-IV-I-V-I-V which open the chorus, then deviate with I-V-IV. He plays this twice before returning to the chorus.

Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you