Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Neil Young Sleeps With Angels (1994)


This album seems to be having a pretty tragic life: I, with no exaggeration, see at least one copy of it at every used record store I browse, every time. Fair enough; none of the songs have found their way into the popular Neil Young canon. But fuck it. I say this is the one Neil Young album where form most closely meets content, and that’s why it’s a great work of art.

A lot of people talk about albums being “depressing” for whatever reason. You hear it a lot about Tonight’s The Night – you actually hear it enough as an adjective for Neil’s music as a whole – but as far as I’m concerned Sleeps With Angels is the only time he’s recorded music that expresses depression as its primary mood. On Tonight’s The Night, the grief and darkness were sublimated into an unreflective hedonism; Sleeps With Angels, though, has a different energy. Jimmy McDonough, in his classic biography Shakey, calls the use of Crazy Horse on this album “a stroke of genius,” and it’s true; they serve the purposes of the album perfectly. Traditionally, Neil’s collaborations with Crazy Horse are the albums on which he “rocks the fuck out,” as one says. Crazy Horse represents vital, outward, life-directed energy and catharsis.

On Sleeps With Angels though, their playing is uncharacteristic. There are no guitar-squalling climaxes, and the performances are subdued throughout. Crazy Horse has always dragged and thudded – that’s Neil’s vision – but when their playing isn’t pushing forward loud guitars, it can be sluggish and confrontational. And on Sleeps With Angels, this consistently creates tension between Neil’s lyrics and the music.

Listen to “My Heart,” the first song: it sports one of those Neil melodies that seem to have always existed, just needing to be found. But the lyrics: “Down in the valley, the shepherd sees/His flock is close at hand/And in the night sky, a star is falling down/From someone’s hand.” This is how we enter the record: a pastoral nighttime scene is matched with lonely Old West piano, and the distant vibraphone – recorded with just enough reverb, mixed down just far enough to conjure up the image of some kind of celestial decay – completes the image of a “star … falling down.” The image of descent; the decline of Kurt Cobain, star in the very-much-earthbound sense, repeating the pattern Neil observed twenty years earlier in Danny Whitten.

Neil dealt with that death through hedonism and some softer drug use of his own (see: “Hitchhiker”). Now, a family man and elder statesman in rock music, it is driven home to him that the demon has not weakened – but how can he react in this situation? The lyrics on Tonight’s The Night could be grief-ridden, but the music reached for life. The lyrics on Sleeps With Angels, however, reach upward: the refrain of “My Heart” is the hypnotic chant “Somewhere, somewhere/I gotta get somewhere/It’s not too late, it’s not too late/I gotta get somewhere.” The celestial imagery introduced at the beginning of the song makes it clear that Neil’s speaker here is referring to his undefined heaven, the “Dream That Can Last” of the final song (which again employs the tack piano, echoing “My Heart” and bookending the album). But the Horse’s drag-and-thud pulls the lyrical sentiment back down to earth.

But this unorthodox approach makes for, I think, Crazy Horse’s best performance. And if not, Sleeps With Angels is at least the moment in which Frank Sampedro lays the ghost of Danny Whitten to rest. Critics still mourn the loss of Whitten’s scratchy, funk-influenced rhythm guitar playing (which was awesome), but on Sleeps With Angels, the Horse is “on some other shit,” as one says. 14-minute album centerpiece “Change Your Mind” is – and I will fight you on this – the best epic Crazy Horse song. Instead of building to the usual intense catharsis, on “Change Your Mind” the Horse instead break the song down: Ralph Molina reduces the beat to kick and snare, Neil wrenches low, bassy, delayed moans from his guitar, and Sampedro crafts abstract textures, finding the other end of the second-guitarist spectrum from Whitten’s sure rhythm. It’s actually dubby. And it’s the sound of the void that the voice of Neil’s lyrics is looking into.

What I think accounts for this album’s place in my heart, though, comes down to that sense of thrill, wonder, and discovery that I get from a favourite album. I don’t feel like I’ve stressed enough how great the production on this album is: it sounds like all the principals were getting themselves reacquainted with the novelty of what can be done in the studio. We get the guys in Crazy Horse playing unfamiliar instruments: Frank Sampedro plays the heavenly vibes on “My Heart,” a vintage Oberheim on “Safeway Cart,” as well as grand piano on “Driveby” and the brilliant “Western Hero.” And just listen to the latter song on headphones. The way the last note – it actually may be wrong to call it a note and not simply a noise – seems to be sounding off just over your head …

So yeah, I call it Neil Young’s best album. Choose a used record store at random, and pick it up there.

February 20, 2013 - Posted by | Neil Young Sleeps With Angels |

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