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.
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.
Respect! That’s what this Neil Young dude deserves for releasing this album. It’s filled to the brim with mid-tempo ballads, sort of similar to Harvest Moon, but that Crazy Horse band came back, so you can expect it to be more electric guitar centered. Yup, remember that crazy distorted guitar that characterized his early ’90s releases? You can hear a lot of that in this album. Fortunately, that guitar doesn’t seem to completely steal the spotlight like it did so frequently on previous albums, so we can concentrate exclusively on Neil Young’s songwriting!
But Neil Young has always been a fairly limited songwriter, and that’s very evident in this release. He comes up with good melodies, but he also frequently comes up with boring and indistinguishable ones. I know that melodies aren’t the only thing to songwriting, but great melodies only help matters! I really adore that rugged piano sound he came up with in the album opener, “My Heart” and the closer “A Dream that Can Last.” That piano sound was unusual and engaging enough for both of those songs to earn A-minuses in the track reviews. The melodies are OK, but they’re not exactly anything I’ll find myself humming under my breath after I’m finished with this review.
The best melody of this album probably occurs in “Change Your Mind.” If Young was going to put an engaging melody anywhere in this album, then it’s a good thing he picked that one, because it’s 14-minutes long! That running length is probably overkill, but it is engaging enough that I hardly notice the time pass. You see, that’s the power of a good melody! As you would expect from 14-minute songs, it is filled to the brim with some more of Young’s wonky guitar solos. I almost don’t even think the wonky guitar style was very appropriate for a song like that, which seemed as though it would be better off as a jangle-pop thing. But it’s impossible to deny that the guitar noodling is 100 percent cool!
I’m also a fan of “Prime of Life,” which gets a very good groove going. It also has a lot of interesting guitar tones and patterns throughout and it has a mightily good melody too. But my favorite thing about it is that ultra high-pitched recorder that whistles around occasionally! If Neil Young would come up with more cool ideas like that recorder, then I think more of his songs would be memorable. I mean, most of these songs are slowly-paced ballads, but I remember “Prime of Life” specifically because of that recorder.
That brings me to discussing this album’s primary weakness: The saminess. Midway through the album, I start to get awfully tired of all these mid-tempo ballads coming on top of one another. …They’re all very nice ballads and they’re great to listen to if you want a low-key though dark album to sit back and soak up, but it would have been nice if this album had a little more diversity in it. There is one quickly paced song in here, called “Piece of Crap,” and I always seem to get incredibly excited whenever it pops up! Not to say that these slowly paced songs are terrible or anything. Songs like “Western Hero” and “Blue Eden” make excellent listens. There’s absolutely nothing cheapish about them. As I said earlier, they’re 100 percent respectable.
Though some of these ballads are clearly better than others. “Safeway Cart” is one of the most brilliant and engaging things the man has ever written. It’s intimate atmosphere immediately draws me in! I also approve of his use of his ultra-distorted guitar in that one… Instead of noodling around constantly like he has done many times before, the guitar only comes in occasionally. It’s more effective that way, methinks. One of the more notable songs on the album is the title track, which hints at Kurt Cobain and his suicide. Certainly, that was a matter that disturbed Young greatly. (I mean, if Kurt Cobain quoted something I had written in his suicide note, I would have gotten terribly depressed to say the least.) That’s a pretty scary song, too, with its strange electric guitar tone.
I gotta say, this is a very, very strong 11. I very nearly gave it a 12, but that was only because it seems like it should have a higher rating than Ragged Glory. But this really is quite a bit weaker than Harvest Moon in my book, so I’ll keep it at an 11. I think if Neil Young would have diversified this album up a bit, it would have been better for all of us! … It’s a very good album, though, and I heartily recommend it to casual fans.