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.
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