Neil Young (1979)
It took a long, long, long time for Neil Young to perfect his songwriting and reinvent himself, but after some hesitant exploration and career setbacks, he finally hit upon a masterpiece. The time period may seem a bit late given the trends he pioneered way back in 1969, but I figured that since he invented them, I’d give him the honors even if he only deserved them later on. Earlier highlights such as Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Harvest are entertaining, but not excellent (After the Gold Rush is a fantastic LP, but is in quite a different vein).
It was when he stepped back and pondered his (and his peers’) place in the whole spectrum of culture that he gained enough perspective to pen this masterwork, whose main concept manifests itself in the sensational opening and closing tracks. The idea of resilience and the triumph of antiquated things shows itself in the album’s themes of American anthropology, mythology and culture. It is a record that’s both wistfully sad and defiant at the same time, with corresponding acoustic and electric sides. They were recorded live, which gives the LP even more honest intimacy and depicts Young’s trademark shaggy, noisy sound the way it was meant to be heard. It could certainly be argued as a forerunner of grunge and, back in the early 70s, an important part of the birth of heavy metal. Importantly, it also served as a reaction to these encroaching trends of hard rock gaining momentum in western culture. Much like the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls did in the wake of the disco/new wave/punk era, Young was proving his adaptability in changing times. He and his band, Crazy Horse, had an economical, dirty playing style, accompanying Neil’s dazzling, poetic and weary prose.
Almost more important than this album’s musical achievement is its metatextual significance. It functions as a statement of relevance and wistfulness from a rapidly fading group of musical legends. Famous 60s musicians were falling out of style and putting out less inspired works by 1979 (at least for those which were still active). Irreverent punks and egghead post-punk musicians were taking up their mantle. Rock music as a whole was starting to age and birth a new generation. Young faced their potential death in the cultural consciousness with this grand statement. They may fall upon rough times, he articulates, but they will stand forever, like rock music itself. It marks the end of an era, as postmodernism and irony had fully overridden gritty sincerity in pop culture. Sure, people could still be honest with their music, but it was in the context of a public who were no longer naïve and idealistic. Rust Never Sleeps was the last gasp of that attitude, at once anachronistic and timeless.
Key track: “Powderfinger”
See also: After the Gold Rush – Neil Young (1970), Harvest – Neil Young (1972), Some Girls – the Rolling Stones (1978)