Friday, February 1, 2008

No. 350: Rust Never Sleeps

Band: Neil Young and Crazy Horse
Album: Rust Never Sleeps
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: "Rust Never Sleeps" is Neil Young's most Neil Young-y album. There are heavy riffs, political messages and Young's classic whine/wail.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The album is so decidedly stylistic that it doesn't let Young show his various non Neil Young-y skills. It's classic Young, with all the trappings, both good and bad.
Best song: Sure, why not? "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" has one of Young's heaviest -- and best -- riffs.
Worst song: "Welfare Mothers" is muddled and I don't care for it.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

Neil Young fancies himself something of a philosopher and "Hey Hey, My My"/"My My, Hey Hey" is his Crito. Young's thoughts on the future of rock and roll were made famous by Kurt Cobain's suicide note ("It's better to burn out than to fade away"), but the hard rock electric riff of "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" is heavenly. The searing distorted guitar is perfect for the record and is looked at as Young's classic electric song.

But, the song is also "Young as older man." Young had gotten to know DEVO and was familiar with the burdeonging greater punk scene and wrote the song as a reaction to said scene. The rock and roll critical community had begun to call Young (specifically) and his contemporaries dinosaurs in the wake of the punk movement. As bands like the Clash and Sex Pistols started to gain traction, Young found himself mired in critically disfavored albums before "Rust" and had to look inward.

And so he wrote "Hey Hey, My My"/"My My, Hey Hey." The song's lyric is clear: Punk rock will not last forever. Johnny Rotten is specifically namechecked, as Rotten went back to being John Lydon upon the Sex Pistols' breakup (as in, Lydon was "fading away"). Young's introspective bitterness is palpable.

To be honest, that attitude works better on "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)." The song's sound has been described as proto-grunge and it remains one of his most popular. For the most part, it's the song that kept him as a viable "artist" (as opposed to sellouts like McCartney and the Stones) in the 1980s. It's that viable artist thing that made Young into the "godfather of grunge" and eventually even worked with Pearl Jam on "Mirrorball." It's all because of this song, basically.


The rest of the album, in a lot of ways, is just as strong as the signature track. "Welfare Mothers" follows Young's other bizarre political work, falling somewhere between the hawkishness of "Hawks and Doves" and the sadness of "Rockin' in the Free World." "Pocahontas" is another of his Young's "history of the Native American" songs, though probably his best. "Thrasher" is similarly great.

Robert Christgau gave the album a rare A+ and I think he gets it right:

The miracle is that Young doesn't sound much more grizzled now than he already did in 1969; he's wiser but not wearier, victor so far over the slow burnout his title warns of.

He's right. This is an album of Neil Young's aging and it sounds great.


kellydwyer said...

When I was in junior high, "Sedan Delivery" and "Powderfinger" were my least two favorite songs on the album. The former because it seems to want to work at a speed that Crazy Horse just couldn't pull off, and I'm not sure why I always skipped "Powderfinger."

Then, last summer after not listening to the album for years, I couldn't stop playing those two songs. "Powderfinger" is so ... assured? Is that the right word? They're so damn confident, pulling that song off.

padraig said...

Yeah, this album's pretty great - it's one of the ones I remember to my folks listening to quite bit growing up. I'd probably take After the Gold Rush (or Zuma just for "Cortez the Killer) myself - but hey, dude was pretty much untouchable through the 70s.

A couple quick points though - I know "fading away" probably refers to the artificial, McLaren-constructed Rotten persona and not the actual person - but let's be clear and not forget Public Image Ltd., who were way more awesome than the Pistols and I'd argue more influential (musically if not culturally). Also, Neil Young was obviously a big influence on the rootsier Pearl Jam side of grunge but the Black Sabbath/Flag mashup via the Melvins etc. was, I think, a far greater influence on the more metallic Mudhoney/Nirvana circa Bleach/Soundgarden axis.

R.J. said...

Padraig, that's a great point. Absolutely, the Black Sabbath/Black Flag thing that the Melvins, Tad, early Soundgarden and others emulated was much more important the Young. Young's thing was really only emulated by Pearl Jam, the most classic rock of all the "grunge" bands (if you can call them that).

I'm not that familiar with PiL, but I've got one of their records coming up towards the end of the list.

padraig said...

rj - yeah, I think you'll really enjoy PIL - I'm not sure how familiar you are with post-punk (outside of the big names like Talking Heads and Gang of Four), which I personally find to be by far the most exciting period for mainly white guitar music, largely because it's the only period when a lot of guitar bands embraced elements of mainly black music like dub, funk, disco and soul not only stylistically but also in production techniques/technology instead of shunning them to worship guitar bands from the 60s-70s. PIL was heavily influenced by dub, especially the bass player Jah Wobble, but they also had a lot of krautrock influence (Can was Lydon's favorite band). Also the whole thing was very intelligent and full of Lydon's ideas - turns out he actually was pretty radical and not just in a shock tactic kinda way (well, until he sold out in the late 80s or so) once he got out from under McLaren's thumb - PIL was actually way more "punk" than the Pistols in attitude and exection. I think you'll enjoy it.