Neil Young has always struck me as a somewhat schizophrenic artist, rattling between noisy guitar-rock which could be either thrilling or dragged out beyond all reasonable endurance and his softer acoustic side, which could either be touching and well-judged, or bland and uninspired. The two sides of his muse rarely acknowledged the existence of the other and when he tried to blend the two it usually ended up bloody mess. Rust Never Sleeps is where the two sides of Young’s persona finally came together in perfect harmony and it resulted in his best album.
At the end of the day having an acoustic half of the album and an electric half wasn’t a revolutionary ides, indeed Bob Dylan had success with the idea on Bringing It All Back Home. However, it was only with Rust Never Sleeps that the formula was finally perfected.
It opens with one of the greatest acoustic riffs in the big book of acoustic riffs and Young starts singing in a voice that sounds upbeat, yet utterly exhausted. This is “My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)” and even after all these years, it remains an utterly brilliant example of songwriting.
The first half of Rust Never Sleeps represents some of Young’s best acoustic songs since After the Gold Rush, with “Thrasher” being a brilliant kiss-off to Crosby, Stills & Nash. Even “Ride My Llama”, the weakest track on the album is shot through with good-natured wit which makes it impossible to dislike.
To me the electric half of Rust Never Sleeps is Neil Young’s finest twenty minutes. Four great guitar tunes, no unnecessary soloing, proper choruses and big glorious riffs. “Powderfinger” is a slow and powerful tune that lumbers around without breaking a sweat and remains a live highlight to this day, “Welfare Mothers” is a song which rarely gets mentioned among Young’s best work, but it’s one of my favourite tunes by him, with a big dumb riff, some of Crazy Horse’s best ensemble playing and a sense of fun about it, “Sedan Delivery” is the epitome of garage band riffarama and “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)” rearranges the opening acoustic number as a huge, stomping rock beast and may one day be acknowledged as rock music’s finest five minutes.
One of the things that makes Rust Never Sleeps such a rewarding listening experience is the ambiance of it, which is down to the fact that much of it was recorded live, with the audience mixed out and a few overdubs added to beef up the sound where required, such as the drums on “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)”. As far as the sound goes, like much of Neil Young’s back catalogue, it’s in desperate need of a remaster, but for the time being the acoustic side still sparkles and the loud rock side sounds loud and rocky.
With Rust Never Sleeps Neil Young had reached a special point in his career that very few musicians ever reach and he’d not come close to it ever again. It has it all.