Rust Never Sleeps
REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/08/2007
There’s a series of short books out there called 33 1/3 where one rock journalist spends 150 pages or so writing about one of the all-time great albums. A few weeks back, I picked up the edition on Harvest, Neil Young’s most famous and best-selling album from 1972.
Note that I did not say it is his best, because that honor might just go to Rust Never Sleeps. Throughout the Harvest book, more than a few mentions are made about this half live/half studio release, so naturally my curiosity was piqued. Having checked this out, I can say that it pays to read (There’s your lesson for the day, kids!).
Considering my previous experience with Young had been the relatively “safe” works like Harvest, After the Gold Rush and Prairie Wind, Rust Never Sleeps shocked the hell out of me. Here was a blistering run through of a variety of genres, coupled with some of Young’s best lyrics to date.
1979 was a changing of the guard in the rock scene. Punk was beginning to burn itself out along with disco, and new wave was entering as hot new trend. So, to hear Young released this half/half offering in a style that was decidedly out of date just goes to show you what kind of guts the man has always had. He released records the way he wants them, when he wants them. Regardless of what you think of his politics or his musical skills, that has to be respected.
I’d be hard pressed to think of an album that splits in two as well as Rust Never Sleeps. Side One for all the vinyl holdouts (it’s coming back!) plays out as the decade's early version of Young Unplugged, while Side Two picks up the pace with a hard rock vengeance. The two halves could not possibly be more different; yet through sheer force of personality and songcraft Young pulls it off.
“My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)” kicks off the proceedings with a promise that it is better to burn out than fade away; how many musicians have taken these words to heart? The ensuing tracks all contain beautiful imagery while revolving around the flaws and faults of our modern society. The tribal “Pocahontas” beings as a loose retelling of the conquering of the Indians before ending with a seemingly obscure reference to Marlon Brando that begs the question of “Was it worth it?”
Then, without warning, Side 2 kicks off with the devastating “Powderfinger,” and what follows is an exercise in how to do rock and roll right. Menacing riffs abound, combined with monstrous beats and chilling solos. My respect for Young as guitar player increased tenfold after listening through Rust Never Sleeps.
Young and Crazy Horse, through the second half of the album, move effortlessly from what we consider classic rock (“Powderfinger”) to arena rock (“Welfare Mothers”) before delving into punk and a sort of proto-grunge. One can hear the roots of bands like Nirvana and Wilco beginning to take; I have no doubt this was an influential album to many musicians over the ensuring decades, especially Pearl Jam. The disc closes with the electric version of "Hey Hey My My (Into The Black)," which reprises its prequel's lyrics but turns on the guitar crunch. It's just as devastating as the acoustic version, a testament to Young's skill.
The career of Neil Young has been exciting, depressing, enigmatic and revelatory. It’s not often one musician can make claim to such a legacy, but Young is such a man. Rust Never Sleeps represents the pinnacle of that career, easily outstripping even his most popular albums like Harvest.
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