Rust Never Sleeps is one of those albums that carries such an overwhelming reputation that the album itself becomes slightly obscured beneath the weight of its own mythology. Its two most often-discussed artistic devices were both tricks Young had used before: a concert recording of new songs (Time Fades Away), and opening and closing the album with different versions of the same song (Tonight's the Night). In this case, the two versions represent the stark contrast of the albums sides: side one is solo acoustic, side two is the Horse with the gain knobs dimed. They also provide a sense of cohesion to what would otherwise seem like two separate EPs.
The album has come to be viewed as one of Young's loud, electric triumphs, but it's quite the opposite. Not only is half the album not electric at all, but the electric side isn't that great. While side one showcases some of Young's most audacious lyricism to date, side two is about half filler. Granted, the guitar tones are incredible, easily Young's most abrasive sounds to date. But two of the four songs don't hold up well at all; how "Welfare Mothers" continues to slip into Crazy Horse set lists to this day is beyond me.
The enduring strength of the record is in the songwriting on side one. The few simple couplets in "My My, Hey Hey (Out Of the Blue)" contribute further to the album's reputation as Young's supposed response to punk, but the rest of the songs don't bear that out. The next three contain some of the most sophisticated and inscutable lyrics of Young's career. I've posted "Thrasher" because it has my favourite melody of the three, but they each contain a fascinating melange of imagery and allusion.
So after a few down years and a subsequent best-of, Young returns to form with what seems to be a mature album of MOR ballads, then turns arround and reminds everyone that, oh yeah, when he feels like it, he can write on par with the likes of Springsteen, Van Morrison, even Dylan. And on top of that, he pads out the rest of the album with electric jams, just so, if you're not paying attention, you might miss the good stuff.
Which is not to say side two is bad, just overrated. "Powderfinger" is the exception, one of Young's finest combinations of powerful songwriting and soaring guitar leads. Check out the lyrics: Where'd the boat come from? Did the kid shoot them? Did they shot him? I've never figured it out; Here's an interesting attempt if you're up for it.
Then there's a couple of clunkers and the other title track (sort of), notable primarily for the freakish guitar sounds Neil gets out his poor suffering amp. All quite listenable, but a pretty high degree of filler for an album considered an unimpeachable classic. Greatest Hits, of course, gives you the electric version of the hit, and no hint of what lies on side one. Go figure.
From my deck to you: Neil Young -
"Thrasher" and Neil Young & Crazy Horse - "Powderfinger"