Rust Never Sleeps

Rust Never Sleeps

Part of what makes Rust Never Sleeps so extraordinary is hearing all the various Neil Youngs in one place: the acoustic (the first half), the electric (the second); the crass (“Welfare Mothers”) and the cosmic (“Pocahontas”); the gentle (“Sail Away”) and the unhinged (“Sedan Delivery”). He’d never had a consistent persona, per se—just listen to “Heart of Gold” next to “Tonight’s the Night.” But he often used the album format, not to mention different groups of musicians, as a way to segregate his wayward impulses: the polite orchestrations of Harvest, the swampy, paranoid On the Beach, and so on. Rust doesn’t reconcile those impulses as much as, to paraphrase the author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of intelligence, prove that he’s capable of holding them all together while still managing to function. But it’s also the first—and arguably clearest—illustration of the radical self-transformations that have defined Young’s career. While his peers from the Woodstock era were taking refuge in fame and the comfort of a cultural battle well-fought, he turned toward punk, not just as the post-apocalyptic sound of the Cold War and early Reagan era (“Sedan Delivery”), but as the inheritor to the rebellion of early rock ’n’ roll (“Hey Hey, My My”). And as much as “Powderfinger” is cloaked in the scenery of early America and the Old West, the essential metaphor of the song is someone so wed to their way of life that they’re willing to die for it. A brave death, but a death nevertheless. The album’s key, then, is “Thrasher,” not just for how unsparingly Young sings about his past bandmates in Crosby, Stills & Nash (“I got bored and left them there/They were just dead weight to me”), but the way he reckons that he, too, will eventually become outmoded, wheat for the thresher, harvested to feed the next generation. According to Mark Mothersbaugh of the punk/New Wave band Devo, who came up with the album’s title, “rust” was their byword for the corruption of innocence and general devolution of humanity. But for Young, it doubles as a note-to-self about the perils of a long creative life: Stop moving, and the rust’ll get you. Roughly 10 years after breaking with Buffalo Springfield and starting his solo career, he celebrated the way visionaries do: by looking forward.

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