With the spring semester wrapping up, it’s a time for introspection for a lot of us at SUNY New Paltz. The majority of us are moving on to our next year at college, the rest are graduating: it’s times like these where we need to sit down, think about how we’re doing and see how we can improve and be our best selves moving forward. I think the soundtrack to that introspection should be Neil Young’s seminal live album, Rust Never Sleeps, released in 1979. It packs a potent blend of country, folk and hard rock that simply can’t go unnoticed.
Young is a man who needs little introduction. Singer, songwriter, guitar-playing extraordinaire, Young has led a nearly 50-year career as a solo artist and as a member of two of the most important rock acts of the last half of the 21st century: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Buffalo Springfield. His lyrics always speak to the heart of whatever matter he’s trying to get at, whether it be political or personal, and his compositions always have a way of getting into your head (seriously, listen to “Southern Man” or “Old Man” and try to forget them.)
So, Young has plenty of incredible albums. Harvest, After the Goldrush, On the Beach, I could go on. Why review Rust Never Sleeps out of all the others?
For one thing, you get both sides of Mr. Young, rather literally. The first half of the album (tracks one through five) is filled with acoustic tracks with Young being incredibly meditative and thoughtful, wrapping his lyrics up in somber metaphor. The second half of the album (tracks six through nine) is filled with cutting edge hard rock tracks that laid the groundwork for grunge. The lyrics are a bit more direct and straightforward, but Young’s lyricism is still as strong as it was on the first half of the record.
For another thing, it’s a live recording. It’s true that a lot of overdubs were made on the album and much of the audience noise had been removed. This may be a turn-off for some recording puritans, but it doesn’t hold the record back at all. Studio and live material are seamlessly blended together, and the lack of audience noise makes you really focus in on the music in lyrics. Essentially, you’re getting studio-album quality recordings with the energy of a live-album. What’s not to love?
So, let’s get into the songs themselves. First, we get “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue),” and Young is starting out strong. “My My, Hey Hey” perfectly encapsulates the main theme of the album; relevance and duration. This album was recorded at a time where the Sex Pistols introduced punk to the world as quickly as they came and Elvis Presley had just passed away at 42 two years earlier. The lyrics are fairly bleak. Young opens with the statement that “Rock and roll is here to stay/It’s better to burn out/Than to fade away.” Young is reflecting on the trend of rock artists burning out as quickly as they come, and the mentality that it’s better to burn like this “than it is to rust” has shaken him as a country singer, a very traditional form of music.
Following this, we get “Thrasher” which tells the story of a man ditching his old life and moving out to the desert to discover himself, wistfully remembering his friends who stayed behind while realizing it’s for the best. “Ride My Llama” is next, where Young is, as the titles implies, riding his llama around the south and is abducted by aliens (really stand-ins for new rock and roll artists). They take interest in his acoustic guitars and play old travelling songs, and “Said it’s old but it’s good/Like any other primitive would.” After that, it’s “Pocahontas,” where Young imagines himself meeting and talking with Pocahontas and actor Marlon Brando (an advocate for Native American rights), and ruminates on the genocide of the American Indian. “Sail Away” closes out the first half of the album, with Neil reflecting on where he could go, who he could meet and how he can end up.
“Powderfinger” opens up the next half of the album, where he’s backed by the band Crazy Horse. “Powderfinger” is about a young man defending his homestead from a gunboat while his family is out, only for him to be cut down when he attempts to retaliate. After that is “Welfare Mothers,” a raunchy ballad dedicated to all…well, mothers on welfare. What follows next is “Sedan Delivery,” a strange, psychedelic stream-of-consciousness rant of Young jumping to a pool hall, a dentist office, then to outer space, before finally ending up in a hospital, implying that these were
Finally, we end on “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” which is a conclusion to Young’s thoughts on his work that have flowing throughout the album and a response to “My My, Hey Hey.” It’s a triumphant turn-around, almost like a character arc in a novel or film. Crazy Horse is playing with all their stops pulled, playing some of the dirtiest bass and guitar riffs ever recorded. Young opens where he left off on the last song: “Rock and roll can never die/There’s more to the picture/Than meets the eye.” He realizes that rock is going to be around forever, and it’s high time he stopped wallowing around in this haze of nostalgia and get on with the times. He’s still going to be Neil Young, but he’s going to play rock music to its full potential. Artists don’t last forever, so it’s better to make the best music you can make before you can’t.
I wish I could talk more about this album, but intro and outro just carry so much thematic weight that little can’t be said about them. Don’t let my glowing praise of these songs outshine the rest of the tracks. They’re great in their own right, and make the album whole, cohesive, piece of art. The album is thoughtful, insightful, impactful, a personal favorite of mine and something that should be listened to at least once by everyone.