Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Rust Never Sleeps (with Crazy Horse)

Comes a Time is a great album, but unlike some of Neil's other classics, there's nothing challenging or controversial about it. At the time it came out, I can imagine that it could have seemed boring, or worse, like a sell-out to some people. Rust Never Sleeps may have been an attempt on Neil's part to fight against claims of irrelevance. He regained some of the darkness, some of the danger, from the "Ditch Trilogy."

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 +


Shenan said...

This is one of the (many) reasons we're so great together- what will often be my favorite of something we both love is your least favorite, and vice versa. Rust Never Sleeps is one of my favorite albums from the Neil we both know and love; one of your least (historically). "Thrasher" is my favorite song on the album; it's always been your least favorite. I'm glad you're coming around to it though.

It's similar to "I'm the Ocean" in the sense that it never really builds or goes anywhere, but I'd argue that like "I'm the Ocean," it doesn't need to. And that's damn hard to pull off, but Neil has the ability, now and again, to write an 8-minute song with 3 chords and no bridge or chorus.

"They were hiding behind hay bales,
They were planting in the full moon
They had given all they had for something new
But the light of day was on them,
They could see the thrashers coming
And the water shone like diamonds in the dew.

And I was just getting up, hit the road before it's light
Trying to catch an hour on the sun
When I saw those thrashers rolling by,
Looking more than two lanes wide
I was feelin' like my day had just begun."

Those are the first two lines of "Thrasher," and I feel like they sum up the feel of it very well. It's a song that you'd sing to yourself when all is quiet, when you get up before dawn and hit the road just as the sun is rising, by yourself, before anyone you're leaving behind can realize you're gone, and you're watching the day break as you're breaking from something yourself. And that feeling, maybe just because I can get into it so well, is one that deeply resonates in the both the lyrics and that simple melodic structure that he repeats for five and a half minutes, so much so that it doesn't even phase me that I'm listening to the same notes for that long. It's just beautiful.

Dan said...

I don't think I've ever said "Rust Never Sleeps" was one of my least favorite albums, just that I never quite saw it as the classic that everyone else does. I still think it's heavily flawed and maybe a little overrated, but I finally realized that its failures are ambitious failures and that its successes outweigh them anyway.

Shenan said...

Oh, I wasn't saying that that was your opinion in this post; I just recalled you saying that in the past (but perhaps that'd changed). Maybe I was wrong.