Rust Never Sleeps was given to me as a gift by my father when I was in high school, and while I was familiar with Neil's music, it was the first album of his I actually owned. It's often considered to be one of Neil's finest, and I think in a lot of ways that reputation has lead to my not fully appreciating it over the years. I could never see past the flaws (and it certainly has many) to the depth of its artistic achievements.
The album has an interesting structure that starts with solo acoustic songs, moves to some folk-rock numbers before transitioning into some of Neil's noisiest hard rock performances. I believe this is a deliberate statement... it is Neil trying to show some sense of progression from his folk/pop of the past, and point towards the future. It's obvious that punk rock was on his mind; the opening and closing tracks, "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)" and "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)," (sort of acoustic and electric evil doppelgangers of each other) proclaim "this is the story of Johnny Rotten." More famously, Neil sings "It's better to burn out/Than to fade away." Neil was only in his mid-30's, and already he was becoming a dinosaur. But he wasn't giving up without a fight.
The earlier, acoustic half of the album perhaps over-indulges in Neil's obsession with Native Americans, and his ideas of some sort of perfect, peaceful society in nature. There's a song called "Pocahontas," and all sorts of lyrics in the first half like "I could live inside a teepee/I could die in penthouse 35," "Burned my credit card for fuel," "In a long and hurried flight from the white man," and so on. Yet there is a real poetry to some of it that I was previously not receptive towards. "Thrasher," for example, is in the tradition of longish, rambling Neil songs that never really build or climax musically, but draw power from their lyrics ("I searched out my companions/Who were lost in crystal canyons/When the aimless blade of science/Slashed the pearly gates").
The most glaring problem with the album may be that, while the heavier, punk influenced material is more daring and forward thinking than the folkie stuff, the second half of the album isn't as strong. "Powderfinger" and "Hey Hey, My My" are excellent, but I've never really cared too much for "Welfare Mothers" or "Sedan Delivery." I suppose they are reasonably catchy, and I like their noise-and-feedback-as-art aesthetic, but they seem slight and silly, sticking out on an album that often feels fraught with self-importance.
Song for song, this is not one of Neil's strongest albums. However, it's far more ambitious than his 4 previous albums, and at its best works as a powerful piece of self-reflection and examination. I prefer the sturdy craftsmanship of Comes a Time, but for all its faults, Rust Never Sleeps is the more interesting, lyrically mature album. I was having trouble assigning it a rating; it's probably in the "A" range for ambition and soul, but more like "B-" for execution and consistency. The clincher for me was "Sail Away," a folksy ballad that would feel right at home on Comes a Time, smack dab in the middle of this odd album, that is one of my favorite songs Neil has ever written. And therein lies the contradiction of Rust Never Sleeps: it's not a great album, but illustrates much of what is great about Neil Young.
Rating: B +