"Rust Never Sleeps" (Warner-Reprise HS 2295) is further testimony to Neil Young's command of the subtle language of rock 'n' roll. His best songs convert lyrics into notes, and notes into lyrics, to produce a poetry of sorts, which, like the finest verse, stubbornly resists all attempts at dissection.
On "Thrasher," the album's best cut, Young brings all his poetic powers to bear on one cryptically rendered scene, which slowly evolves into an autobiographical ballad:
They were hiding behind hay bales,
They were planting in the full moon
They had given all they had for something new;
But the light of day was on them,
They could see the thrashers coming
And the water shone like diamonds in the dew.
And just when sentimentality threatens to set in, Young shifts the emphasis with a ditty like "Ride My Llama," which is more an idle musing than a serious song.
This ability to move from the sublime to the silly serves Young well: He has a comedian's appreciation of inanity for its own sake, and, on "rust Never Sleeps," he is willing to indulge the lighter side.
Behind the foolishness, however, there often lurks a legitimate message. For example, while the phrase "rust never sleeps" actually came from an advertisement for a rustproofing compound, Young appropriated it as a metaphor for the decline of rock 'n' roll. It then became the inspiration for the album's opening cut. "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)" in which he declares "It's better to burn out than it is to rust."
Young is fascinated with both the mellow and the maniacal strains in rock music. Side one of the album recalls the pop-folk sound of "Comes a Time," complete with the resonant, country-tinged background vocals of Nicolette Larson, while side two crackles with intentional feedback and distortion worthy of "American Stars and Bars" or "Zuma." Side two is so electrically charged, in fact, that two of the songs ("Powderfinger" and "Sedan Delivery") were offered to Lynyrd Skynyrd for possible use on the "Street Survivors" album, which turned out to be their last.
Much of "Rust Never Sleeps" comes from the legendary Neil Young "tape vaults," which are rumored to hold anywhere from 100 to 200 unreleased songs. Young has talked some about having them released after his death, like musical time capsule, but no concrete plans have been announced.
More than anything else, "Rust Never Sleeps" is a live album, and, as such, it exploits a medium with which Young seems comfortable, even confident. Back with Crazy Horse, his longtime back-up band, Young achieves a volume and intensity on side two which recall the final sets of each of his recent tour stops. When asked about the unexpected fury, Young told Cameron Crowe of Rolling Stone, "I wanted people to leave saying that Neil Young's show was the loudest f--- thing they'd ever heard," which it might well have been.
And so with "Rust Never Sleeps," his 14th solo album in just over 10 years, Young proves once again that there is a demand for imaginative, even cryptic, lyrics, set to the volatile music of passion and introspection. As if to underscore his belief in the continued vitality of rock and roll, Young begins and ends "Rust Never Sleeps" with a cryptic (and strangely personal) aphorism:
Hey, hey my my
Rock and roll can never die
There's more to the picture
Than meets the eye
An abhorrence of the obvious is behind most carefully wrought poetry and fiction, and music is no different. In the idiom of rock 'n' roll, Neil Young has once again shown himself to be one of its most gifted stylists.