If you’re after a start-to-finish cohesive listening experience — something that works as an album — Rust Never Sleeps probably isn’t it. It’s a strange melange of under-produced solo voice-and-acoustic-guitar tracks, rowdy recorded-live-with-Crazy-Horse tracks and a lone slickly-produced MOR country track (“Sail Away”) that never quite gels as a unified vision and which, in my house, generally gets stopped after the first track on the second side. For an album experience, I’ll take After the Goldrush, Harvest, Tonight's the Night. But nonetheless Rust Never Sleeps is and always will be Neil Young’s high point to me, for the four songs it contains that are virtually untouched by any artist anywhere, three of which I play myself with regularity to this day, and have played since I first learned guitar thirty years ago: “Thrashers”, “Powderfinger”, “Hey Hey, My My” and the apparently throwaway but hauntingly beautiful “Ride My Llama” (“I met a man from Mars, he picked up all my guitars and played me a travelling song”). The famous line from “Hey Hey, My My” — “There’s more to the picture than meets the eye” — is Young’s manifesto here. Superficially, these songs do not smack of mastery. Chord-changes are solid but unexceptional, playing is lyrical but minimal, Young’s singing is tuneful but understated, some might say affectless; but in that calm, stoical delivery is conveyed a wealth of emotion, so much that I generally shed a tear every time I hear or sing “Thrashers”, even though I understand barely half of it. “They had the best selection / They were poisoned with protection” — it gets me every time. Eagles, vultures, ancient rivers, crystal canyons — it’s a flat-out symbolist masterpiece with a yearning, solitary heart. It’s “Howl” with a tune. Weirdly, you won’t find a chorus, or a pre-chorus, in any of the three most famous of these songs, just a tumble of words with occasional (very occasional) repetition to create motifs like signposts as to where a chorus might be if Young felt the need of one. But, well, he doesn’t. Because though to the casual listener he might not sound it, Young is, truly, a master, his mastery so assured he’ll just drawl “My my, hey hey / Rock ’n’ roll is here to stay” over the I, IV, V and VI chords if that’s what it takes. Nothing to prove. This is raw soulful genius of the kind that comes along a few times in a lifetime, and I haven’t even started on “Powderfinger” yet. Hats off.
I’m far from a metalhead and I came to Sabbath late, but at the age of 45 I’ve realised this album is a classic, probably one of the 5-10 most influential rock albums ever made—it will never die. I’m not saying it’s perfect; as other reviewers have noted, it’s patchy, and after the third track it never rises to the same heights again. Also, I agree with the AllMusic reviewer’s criticism of Tony Iommi: he’s a brilliant player, but his solos, to me, seem clumsy and never quite move me. On the other hand, personally I love Ozzy’s vocals: he has the knack of pitching them with just the right emotional distance to be able to get away with almost any banal or ridiculous lyric Geezer throws at him, while still belting for all he’s worth when required. Bill Ward, too, is in fine form here, playing as well as he ever would in my opinion, at least for the course of the next three albums (which I’ll admit are the only ones I’ve studied closely); he always claimed a jazz heritage and you can hear that here. Also the drum-sound itself is beautiful, clear, crisp, not harsh (like their later self-produced albums), as is the entire mix; producer Roger Bain, while not the puppetmaster genius he later claimed to be, does pretty much the best job humanly possible of capturing this band in full flight. And at root, it’s as a band that Sabbath excel, combining to form more than the sum of their parts as only the greatest rock alchemists can. Opener “Black Sabbath” is utterly sublime—restrained, disciplined, bombastic, operatic all at once; it’s a mini symphony. I dig “The Wizard” too; as a blues fan I love Sabbath most at this intersection of styles, and Ozzy plays a mean, fat-sounding harp. “Behind the Wall of Sleep” features dextrous, hypnotic timing and tempo changes that testify to long hours spent jamming during seven-set days in Hamburg. For my money, “N.I.B.” is a step down in quality, despite that here they pioneer the style (vocals and guitar riff locked together) that would later become their trademark. Which leaves just two more highlights: “Warning” (contrary to some reviewers, I love it; it’s a blues epic, and it’s great to hear Iommi sound like he’s sessioning on a Them track, even if just for a minute or so) and “Wicked World” (great spaced-out arpeggio from Iommi in the breakdown and thunderous Cream-like ensemble playing throughout). Overall, the picture is of stylistic innovators on the cusp of a world-beating invention: metal. Sure, the later tracks (clearly written earlier) sound unaware of the innovations ahead, but that’s part of what makes this album so fascinating. Paranoid, I know, is the widely acknowledged masterpiece, and I’ll admit it has something (relentless dark intensity) that this set doesn’t. But for me there’s a magic in the first album that the band would never quite regain, undeniably great as they continued to be. Age 45, I’ve joined the black masses.