Not to get overly cheesy here, but this album is a journey, and Neil Young sequencing the album to play like a reverse-Bringing It All Back Home (or Ain’t That Good News) (or Tattoo You) was nothing short of genius and perhaps the finest example of track sequencing from the 70s. The result is an “album-long crescendo,” as CapnMarvel put it, and it gives each of the album’s weaker songs – half the album, actually – a purpose, with say, the groovy-if-goofy “Welfare Mothers” picking up momentum after the cathartic “Powderfinger,” which is itself more powerful (lyrically and sonically) than anything preceding it, while “Sedan Delivery”‘s constant tempo-shifting feeling like it’s actually gaining momentum for the final cadence that is “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).”
And bookending the album with Neil Young’s best rocker at the end and a solo acoustic version at the start implicitly asks you what has changed. Not just the sound, obviously, or the lyrics (whose opening and closing verses are inverted), but the meaning. Picture the context: 1979, when punk rock was already becoming post-punk and where the 60s’ heroes had all but checked out. Then picture Neil Young, center-stage, with nothing but an acoustic guitar, singing lines like “Rock and roll is here to stay,” “Rock and roll can never die,” and the immortal “It’s better to burn out / Than to fade away” (Neil Young really took that bit to heart), like he’s begging us not to forget him. Then eight songs later, with the most exhilirating guitar crunch you’ll ever hear, it’s like he’s “point[ing] ahead with wide-eyed wonder and cast an eye backwards with the perspective of 15 years in the game” (CapnMarvel again). And yeah, the closer’s his best song: check out the backing vocals in the third verse; check out every guitar solo, each one simultaneously flickering like a candle and hitting with the force of a bag of bricks; check out the audience’s acceptance of Neil Young, finally appearing at the end of the song/album; check out the way he sings “And once you’re gone / You can’t come back” and compare it to the way he sings it on the acoustic version: sad on the opener, invigorated to anger on the closer.
On the rest of the album, listen to how the backing “ooh”‘s (some of the best backing “ooh”‘s you’ll ever hear) and guitar solos capture the lost feeling of “And I just turned twenty-two / I was wonderin’ what to do” and the fear in the following lines “And the closer they got / The more those feelings grew” on “Powderfinger.” Meanwhile, “Thrasher” might be his most picturesque song, thanks both to the beautiful acoustic sound and his lyrics, and the zippy noise in the background of “Pocahontas” is a wonderful detail. The rest: “Ride My Llama” is filler, and “Sail Away” is pleasant. You might think that only half an album of great songs makes for a shaky album. I’d say all of Neil Young’s albums are shaky, which is probably how he got his nickname (obviously not really), and that this is one of his best regardless of its flaws.