Counterbalance No. 133: Neil Young's 'Rust Never Sleeps'
The King is gone, but he’s not forgotten. This is the story of the 133rd most acclaimed album of all time. Is there more to the question than meets the eye? This week’s Counterbalance investigates.
Klinger: It's almost hard to believe that we've only had two opportunities to talk about Neil Young, considering how he was a constant source of fascination to critics back in the 1970s and then almost shorthand for artistic integrity when he became a standard bearer in the 1990s. But here we are with his 1979 live experiment Rust Never Sleeps, which to me might somehow be, on the surface anyway, more representative of Young's overall output than either of the two albums we've covered previously. In its right down the middle mix of solo works and Crazy Horse jams, we get the sense of the two sides of Neil Young—cranky acoustic troubadour and cranky electric thud-rocker.
Clearly, there's a lot to unpack with this most unusual project, from its in-concert setting to its songwriting to the way Neil Young attempts to find his place as an elder statesmen/boring dinosaur (depending on which side of the line you stood) in the late '70s. I know you've expressed a preference for electric Neil in the past, so I'm eager to hear how you have made your way into this double-sided piece of wax.
Mendelsohn: I was thinking the other day how weird it was that we hadn't really talked too much about Neil Young. For an artist of his stature and perceived realm of influence, we've only talked about two of his many recordings—After the Gold Rush at 44 and Harvest at 97. Respectable positions to be sure, but his contribution thus far has been overshadowed by multiple entries from the Beatles, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and Radiohead—leaving Young as an under-represented entity in the Top 100. But that picture changes slightly as we travel down the list. By the time we get through 200 albums, Young will have racked up five entries, putting him in that select group above—well, maybe a tier or two below.
Out of the three Young albums we have listened to, Rust Never Sleeps is by far the one I have enjoyed the most. It may be because I've conditioned myself to like Young's music, or maybe it's because Young's songwriting had become more rounded. The folk isn't so folksy and the electric shronk isn't so shronky. Plus, having Crazy Horse as the backing band certainly helps—nothing against the Stray Gators.
Klinger: Well, huh. Once again you and I have found ourselves on opposite sides of the divide. I have found Rust Never Sleeps to be a marked drop from our previous Neil Young excursions, and I think it all comes down to a question of melody. To my ears, one of Young's primary gifts is as a melodist, which is a necessary skill to have when your voice is, shall we say, not conventionally beautiful (see also: Dylan, Bob). The crystalline "After the Gold Rush" or "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" manage to complement Neil's singing style in a way that just makes you ache. On Rust Never Sleeps, though, I feel like the melodies very seldom stick the landing, so the strummy guitars on side one and rockery on side two come across as a bit more by-the-numbers than what we've encountered before.
I'm not dismissing this album—the aforementioned "Sail Away" comes pretty darn close to his previous standards. And "Hey Hey, My My" is a necessary part of the Neil Young mystique, although that may have more to do with his willingness to reference Johnny Rotten and present himself as the Classic Rocker with the Positive Attitude toward Punk Rock. But I was a lot more uneasy with this record than I thought I would be. Or maybe I just got squicked out about him wanting to sleep with Pocahontas.
Mendelsohn: Yeah, "Pocahontas" is straight up creepy. In fact, I've been skipping by most of the strummy bits lately. "Ride My Llama" and "Pocahontas" don't do much for me. The same goes for "Thrasher"—there just isn't anything there. It's the rockery on side two that ends up grabbing me. Where those songs may be missing some of the melody that propelled After the Gold Rush and Harvest, they make up for it in some signature hooks. You know the song has a catchy hook when you start humming to yourself about welfare mothers making better lovers.
Klinger: Again, ew. And I'm not sure that repeating a phrase 862 times counts as a hook.
Mendelsohn: If it sticks in my head, it's a hook. Doesn't matter how creepy it is.
Your complaint that Young could never quiet stick the melody on this record may have more to do with this being a live recording than anything else. On the flip side, the live playing adds an element of raw energy and improvisation that cannot be recreated in the studio. When Young does stick the landing, you end up with a great song like "Powderfinger", a terrifically executed yet deeply sad song made all that much better thanks to the back of Crazy Horse.
Klinger: Well, "Powderfinger" is certainly evocative of sadness, although I'm still not sure I fully understand the lyrics enough to find it actually sad. Did you know that Young originally wrote that song for Lynyrd Skynyrd? Their so-called feud might not have been quite the death match that some of their fans made it out to be. And your point about it being a live album is well-taken (although given that he was performing unfamiliar songs in concert, it's quite likely that he was performing to people who were in line for the bathroom).
Mendelsohn: That one surprised me a little bit. Apparently he hadn't written both "Sedan Delivery" and "Powderfinger" for his friend Ronnie Van Zant. I don't think there is much mystery to "Powderfinger". A young man gets killed because of his inability to make a decision.
It might be the third most straightforward song on this album. Number one being "Welfare Mothers"—no question what that song is about. The second being the bookends of "My My Hey Hey".
Klinger: At any rate, I'm still inclined to believe that a big part of the critical appeal of Rust Never Sleeps lies in the conceptual framework that's established with "My My Hey Hey"/"Hey Hey, My My". Not only is it among his most lyrically straightforward songs, but it also serves as a statement of purpose for rock and/or roll that manages to be inclusive at a time when critics were looking to punk to save pop music from Andy Gibb. Throughout this period, Young seemed to stretch out quite a bit, jamming with Devo and writing a song like "Thrasher", which certainly comes across as an extended dig at Crosby, Stills and Nash. Of course, he it wasn't long before stretched himself a bit too far (Icarus-like? Maybe like Icarus…) with the synth-drenched, robot-voiced Trans (a record that I have literally no problem with, by the way).
Mendelsohn: Well you may be the only one. Young has 15 albums on the Great List, spread fairly evenly throughout the Top 3000. Trans isn't one of them.
Klinger: Yeah, I know I'm the odd one out here—Trans is considered one of the great follies of rock, but I just can't help admiring its perversity. And really, whenever critics praise Young for his ornery thorniness and thorny orneriness on songs like "Hey Hey, My My", which they do, they're really looking at the other side of the coin as Trans.
Mendelsohn: "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" is also the culmination of the electric shronk that Young had been playing with on After the Gold Rush. That song may have planted the seed for grunge with its thick guitar riff and off-kilter solo. You know, I never really understood the connection between the grunge bands of the 1990s and Young's music until just now. It didn't click until I said it out loud. It all makes sense now.
Klinger: Sure, but then again, I'm not really a nut for grunge either. In fact, I think it was around that time that I had more or less given up on the idea that I would ever really like Neil Young. It wasn't until this project forced me to sit and listen to his facility for a melody that I started to see him as a lot more than Eddie Vedder's spiritual forebear. And again, that's why I'm kind of disappointed with Rust Never Sleeps and tend to think of it as iconic more for the stance it seems to be taking rather than the way it goes about saying it.
Mendelsohn: I don't think Rust Never Sleeps is as lacking in melody as you make it out to be. It may not be as overt as his previous efforts, but I that's the thing I'm really starting to appreciate about Young—he went wherever the muse took him. Folk rock, alt-country, proto-grunge, electric-voiced weirdness, it all adds up to an astonishing career. Rust Never Sleeps was just another high point and Young astutely pointed out what everyone wanted to say about rock 'n' roll but didn't know how. Sure, it's a little off and has some rather odd lyrical material, but at the end of the day, what more could we ask for from an artist like Neil Young?