Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Neil Young Sleeps With Angels (1994)


Neil was certainly on a roll this time. You know, there’s this breed of guys who can be seriously entertaining or seriously annoying depending on which part of their image they prefer to emphasize on a given album. Bruce Springsteen is one o’ them guys, Neil Young is the other one. You can catch him in a whiny confessional heart-on-a-sleeve mood, when the endless self-pitying can really get to you; you can catch him in a preachy universalist mood like on ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’, when it’s pretty hard to draw a difference between Neil and, uh, John Cougar; or you can catch him in a puffed-up metaphysical mood, like on ‘After The Gold Rush’, where you just don’t know what the hell is going on.

But you can also capture him somewhere in between all these, which is exactly what Sleeps With Angels is. The album itself is dedicated to Kurt Cobain (it’s him that sleeps with angels, see?), and Neil again teams up with Crazy Horse on here to deliver some more grungy rockers in the memory of the Nirvana founder; however, Kurt’s suicide is merely one of the elements that lie in the basis of the record. What are the others is hard to tell – there’s a little bit of everything, I guess, but really nothing that would hit you like a hammer and make you develop a violent counter-reaction. There’s a feeling of disturbance, discomfort, doubt and even torment, mixed with vague traces of optimism and good will, throughout the album, but Neil doesn’t concentrate on any particular emotion long enough. If anything, it’s just a mighty confused record, with no definite conclusions to it, which actually throws some people off the track – but really, if you’re talking about me, that’s the way I like my Neil Young best. What would you like to hear instead, ‘Let’s Roll’? Eh??

Since it’s so confused, it’s also pretty diverse musically, though, of course, not in a White Album way. The rockers all seem pretty similar, same sludgy mid-tempo riffless grooves with the classic Neil Young guitar tones and the classic Neil Young syncopation. The ballads can be poppy, or they can be more country-western like those on Harvest Moon, but they’re still ballads. Yet just about every song on here seems well thought out, never really a throwaway or filler piece, with lyrics that’ll keep you thinkin’ and melodies that’ll keep you groovin’. It sure is long, though, and maybe taking advantage of the CD format to extend the running length over an hour wasn’t such a good idea.

Although I certainly wouldn’t want to cut the length down through the most obvious choice – the fourteen-minute long album centerpiece, ‘Change Your Mind’. It’s essentially a ‘rocking ballad’, and a bit too preachy for me (‘when you get weak and you need to test your will… distracting you from this must be the one you love’, oh thank you doctor, I had no idea), despite the catchy chorus and the pretty ‘change your mind, change your mind’ backing harmonies. But it’s stretched out to this “hideous” length by including a couple ominous distorted jamming interludes a la ‘Cortez The Killer’, which seems like a great idea to me. Optimistic preachiness constantly interrupted by moody, doom-laden guitar grumbles kinda undermines the generic effect of the former – so that the two main “moods” of the track can’t really exist without one another. That’s good.

Out of the rocking stuff, two more obvious highlights come to mind. The blues jam ‘Blue Eden’ is a three-headed dragon (granted, a little bit overweight from consuming too many gentlemen, so that he can only move very slowly) breathing fire and spitting ash – funny that the ’embracing, distorting, supporting, comforting… all over you’ lines are actually reprised from the preceding ‘Change Your Mind’, although the two songs are directly opposed to each other in mood. And the sliding bassline in ‘Safeway Cart’ might just be the moodiest element ever (at least, out of the easily identifiable ones) to be found on a Neil Young record. Actually, that’s the second bassline – there’s a regular bass pattern there, plus this second sliding bass note repeated over and over. Very spooky and disturbing. Oh yeah, there’s also the title track, of course. I’d say the dissonant screeching guitars on there pave the way for the Dead Man soundtrack, but of course, more important is that it’s Neil Young’s take on “the story of Kurt and Courtney”. It’s short, inspired, and dangerous-sounding – as supposed.

The ballads aren’t really the strong part of Sleeps With Angels; some, like ‘My Heart’, seem slightly underwritten and underarranged. Even so, it has the pretty ‘Driveby’ and the funny country-‘Western Hero’ (which has the exact same melody as the Stones’ ‘Indian Girl’ and probably as a whole bunch of Neil Young’s own songs; actually, I’m not raising the question of self-repeating here, even if I do get an intuitive feeling that at least half of the melodies on this album had been used before, but whatever the case, here they’re used in a different context, so let’s just leave it at that). But my attention still prefers to go to the terrific ‘Piece Of Crap’ rocker at the very end of the album. The only song on here that really KICKS ASS! It’s faster, it’s more energetic, it has Neil Young condemning the consumer industry (‘I tried to plug it in/I tried to turn it on/When I got it home/It was a piece of crap’) and other things along the way and it has Crazy Horse members yelling ‘PIECE OF CRAP!’ at the end of each verse. It’s so goddamn at odds with all the rest of the album, yet I’m so glad it’s on there. Might just be my favourite Neil Young song after all these years. Heh.


March 15, 2013 - Posted by | Neil Young Sleeps With Angels |

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