Friday 11 November 2011

Neil Young and Crazy Horse "Sleeps With Angels" (1993) (News, Views and Music 121)

You can buy 'Here We Are In The Years - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Neil Young' in e-book form by clicking here

Neil Young and Crazy Horse “Sleeps With Angels” (1993)

My Heart/Prime Of Life/Driveby/Sleeps With Angels/Western Hero/Change Your Mind//Blue Eden/Safeway Cart/Train Of Love/Trans Am/Piece Of Crap/A Dream That Can Last

‘Though you feel invincible, it’s just a part of life’

Here’s a belated Halloween album for you all, one that’s haunted by the ghosts of the recently departed and an old friend, a record full of unexpected tricks and treats. The recently departed (in 1994 at least) is Kurt Cobain, singer and guitarist with grunge band Nirvana, who shocked the music industry by refusing to become a celebrity and instead commit suicide on the eve of his big breakthrough at the age of 27 (the same ‘27’ club Amy Winehouse recently joined alongside Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison). Spookily I’m here, on draft three of this review, 25 years to the day since his passing as people remember where they were when they heard the news that he had died – I know where Neil was, he was in the studio working on this album where it was struggling to come together until a sudden burst of inspiration thanks to his death led to Neil writing the title track in a hurry and shaping the rest of the album. Though around three quarters of ‘Sleeps With Angels’ had been recorded already, it was already an album shaped by death in its every pore, a chilling album of demons full of senseless casual murder, desperate unfulfilled romantic longing (with Neil torn in two between Pegi and Darryl again) and misery. It’s an unusual, haunted, frightened husk of an album which doesn’t know which way is up and which is down and, like Tonight’s The Night, takes pride from the darker side of life showing through. It is, I think it’s fair to say, the weirdest possible follow-up to a hit record since…well ‘Journey Thru The Past’ as it happens as Neil repeats the cycle of not just returning to his great successes but his noble commercial failures too. The irony this time is that it’s not just Neil but the world that’s in a darker edgier place by 1994 and unlike the first time around this un-commercial bleak monochrome concrete slab of an album became a big seller, Neil’s highest since ‘Harvest’.  

Part of that, surely, was the amount of grunge kids looking for a Nirvana-shaped hole to fill in their lives and who figured that Neil was about the only person around who felt their pain. Why, you may be asking, why was Neil singing about a musician twenty years his junior and who only actually made that leap into being a household name thanks to the manner of his death? Well, Kurt was part of the Seattle ‘grunge’ scene that had praised Neil as their champion (the ‘Godfather of Grunge’, a name Neil actually hated even more than the punks calling him ‘Grandpa Granola’) and ‘Ragged Glory’ had become a surprise breakthrough hit with the teen market. Why, I was even popular in my school playground, ever so briefly, when after boring everyone with tales of how wonderful CSNY were for about five years a Nirvana fan picked up on who I was actually talking about. The pair had long been linked, even if there’s really very little to connect the two in terms of songwriting (Cobain lived in a world that was pure misery every day; Neil only visited there as one of many locations in his songs). Perhaps the biggest example of the differences between them is that when Neil first wrote his famous phrase from [133] ‘Hey Hey My My’ ‘is it better to burn out than it is to rust?’ he was ambiguous, keen to show the world that he was around for the long-term because you rust just as much being dead as alive ([71] ‘For The Turnstiles’, a song about how even the most alive and brilliant human being becomes a statue stuck in one place before too long, makes it clear what he thinks about suicide and glorifying death, not to mention the memories of Danny Whitten on [54] ‘The Needle and The Damage Done’ and several other songs). Graham Nash for one hated the phrase, spitting venom at Young’s biographer Jimmy McDonaugh when interviewed about the line, saying how much more honourable it is for musicians to live by their music into old age, writing about their experiences along the way, something Johnny Cash so bravely did. For Kurt, though, living on meant selling out and he quoted Neil’s line in his own suicide note, preferring to go out in a blaze of glory (the rest of the note read ‘The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it. I don’t have the passion anymore’).  Neil, just as he did when handing Danny the fare home that it was long thought he used to buy the drugs he overdosed with, felt responsible. Had he planted those seeds of doubt in someone else’s head? Had this been the ‘Doom Trilogy’ era Neil might have felt like joining in too, but the title track of this album, written in a hurry about not just Kurt but widow Courtney Love, makes it clear where his feelings now lie. ‘Too soon’ the chorus intones, ‘too early’. Life is too precious to throw away. Kurt didn’t live long enough to realise that life comes around again and goes in cycles. Here is another of Neil’s turns towards the dark side.  

There’s another spooky aspect to this album too. Neil’s gone on record (about the only time he did go on record in 1994) to say that he thought lots about Kurt before his death, especially in the middle of the night, and many times reached to the phone because he felt some ‘connection’ with him without knowing what it was - and how bitterly he regrets the fact that he never talked to the guitarist before his death in case he ‘changed his mind’ about what his line in the song actually meant. He’d even got so far as getting ever-harassed manager Elliott Roberts to make it happen; something extraordinary for a famous guitarist of an entirely different generation to think about someone who wasn’t all that well known outside Seattle at the time. The two clearly had a connection of some sort and Neil seems to have seen something of himself in the Nirvana singer (though goodness only knows what, given that Cobain only really had one style and look to Neil’s zillions): is this album really a ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ kind of LP? That Neil so very nearly made the same decision before something pulled him back from the brink (certainly Neil was almost an expected casualty in the press when he ‘went all weird’ with the doom trilogy in 1972-75 without actually telling most reporters about Whitten’s death and the guilt this caused). Or is Neil pointing out the differences, the things in life that made him stay ‘behind’ to finish his work despite being just as committed to his muse and work as Cobain? After all, Young was seen as being ‘all washed up’ by 1973 – and again in the mid-1980s and so now at any time since the mid-1990s. Neil’s career has clearly always been about ‘cycles’, something he talks about a lot now he’s in his seventies – did Kurt at twenty-seven not realise that, despite being a Young fan? Or could he simply not face the bit in-between, the ‘wildnerness’ years before he became ‘good’ and wrested control of his music again? Was his worry before he died casting a shadow on Neil’s mood even before he took his own life on April 5th 1994, just twenty days before sessions for this album wrapped up? 

‘Sleeps With Angels’ was already a spooky album even before that album came along though, a record where the darker edges come through. Though there aren’t any actual references to death across the entire album it’s no coincidence that the record begins and ends in the ‘heaven waiting room’ setting that’s already been used by Neil once on his song ‘Wrecking Ball’, only ‘My Heart’ is a man on his way to heaven who thinks he’s still on earth and ‘A Dream That Can Last’ is a man in heaven who thinks he’s still on earth. Realising the difficulties of writing a single phrase that can be taken to such extremes post-rust, Neil spends a whole album here debating what took him a line to say in 1979 and it’s all the better for it, the album swaying between the need to be ‘real’ and uncompromising in your beliefs and the need to think longer-term, to be a survivor. The answer is to see the truth as clearly as you can and to not be fooled away from your life’s work. Like much of ‘Tonight’s The Night’ the world of the living and especially the celebrity is a sham, full of preachy ecologists and materialists who let people down and fill their heads with the wrong things, full of criminals and thieves and bandits and politicians out to take everything away that matters, from the Trans Am railways to lives in driveby shootings. Yet the difference between 1994 and 1973 in Neil’s tired eyes is that on the other the world is a hopeful place, full of love and faith, one that’s messed up because of human frailties that can’t cope with the bad parts not because the world is intrinsically evil. Kurt and those like him pay the price of it and Neil himself opens the album with a song about his need to protect his heart from the darker side of life, but he ends the album still believing in as ‘dream that can last’, with hope that he didn’t have last time things got this bleak back in the early 1970s. Even here there’s a double-edged sword, with a fourteen minute epic about love and its capacity to grow in ‘Change Your Mind’ (Neil’s longest song so far) parodied mercilessly by the next track, the uncomfortable ‘Blue Eden’, where love is ‘distorting…controlling, destroying’ alongside all the happy adjectives. 

Neil deliberately chose not to talk about this album on release, with the only bit of promotion a video ‘EP’ of four of the album tracks – which in true Neil style usually means this is an album close to his heart (he didn’t talk about ‘Trans’ and its very personal background much either and Neil’s other most nakedly autobiographical work that decade, ‘Eldorado’, became an EP that was only released in Japan). What’s unique about ‘Sleeps With Angels’, though, among all sixty-odd albums in Young’s canon, is that there’s so little personal revelation here. Most of the big responses on ‘Sleeps’ are of other people, from the ‘Western Hero’ to the train driver on the Trans Am to the Royalty of ‘Prime of Life’ and ultimately Cobain himself on the title track. It could perhaps have been another ‘character’ album like ‘Everybody’s Rockin’. However despite the lack of specifics the whole album just seems to fit with every other ‘personal’ Neil Young album: the shadowy figure on the album sleeve (very like ‘Tonight’s The Night’), the blurred images of the Horse in the booklet (again like ‘Tonight’s) and the pictures of Neil taken using a digital camera, reflecting and distorting his face just like the Neil-in-a-guitar pose on the back cover of ‘Trans’. I’m tempted to think that the characters here really are Young, or at least aspects of his character and that he sees some aspect of himself in the gangster ([14] ‘The Loner’ turned bad), the train driver (Neil is obsessed with trains almost as much as music), the royal figures looked up to by others and ultimately Curt himself, a figure so un compromising about making his music ‘real’ that he went to the ultimate lengths to stop the record companies taking his music over. Neil also sounds detached and hard to hear across this album, which is often a clue that neil has big ideas on his mind – admittedly he’s not hiding behind a bunch of anonymous vocoders whilst he’s singing these words as he did on ‘Trans’, but they are hard to hear and less emotional than most Young recordings, more like ‘Re-Ac-Tor’ (an album made when Young felt he had a lot to hide) than, say, ‘Harvest Moon’. 

On the negative side all this hazy imagery means that the songs on ‘Sleeps With Angels’ are, all too often, sketchy, as if Neil’s drawn them in in pencil and hasn’t gone back to adding the aural equivalent of colour to flesh out the sound. All of the tracks blend in together here in one great ball of shadowy mush, perhaps the single biggest difference separating this record from the very different sounding tracks across the ‘Doom Trilogy’ (although side two of ‘On The Beach’ did sound a little like this). ‘Sleeps With Angels’ is not an album packed with your favourite standout Young moments but the sort of album that will take you a decade before you can start naming all the songs. This technique will reach its nadir in a few years with ‘Broken Arrow’ and ‘Are You Passionate?’ et al, albums where Neil hasn’t even worked out what chords he wants to play or how to link his images into properly constructed ‘songs’, but for now that’s not actually the automatically bad point that last sentence made it sound. The songs here are fragile, to the point where most of them fade into a silence that’s only fractionally quieter than the songs, like a ghost has just swept round the room and you’re not really sure what you’ve just heard and what was your brain filling in the gaps. These are songs that could take a different path right up until the last note, with the theme of the album one of ‘change’, a word that keeps cropping up again and again, often just before a guitar solo or a middle eight explodes out of nowhere like an atom bomb. The lack of overdubs and production techniques also gives this album a similarly ‘loose’ feel to the two ‘classic’ Crazy Horse albums ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ (the one Young album made with Danny Whitten playing all the way through) and ‘Tonight’s The Night’ (the requiem for Danny’s death) and gives the band plenty of room to stretch out and get to grips with the material (apparently the three Horse members Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina were given the chord changes by producer David Briggs to play the day before recording, which is more warning than they usually get, but not the lyrics or vocal parts, which might be why this album sounds so ragged and yet still tighter than ‘Tonight’s The Night’ or ‘Re-Ac-Tor’ where the band didn’t know the songs at all. This is in heavy contrast to more recent ‘Horse’ albums like ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ and ‘Life’ where the Horse were endlessly drilled over how to play each and every note. ‘Sleeps’ is all about atmosphere rather than the songs or the recordings, the whole album seeming to pass in one great whole, even though when you hear the songs independently, separated by something else, they actually sound quite different from each other, so much so you’d be hard pressed to work out they were all from the same record (as happens when I put my MP3 player on shuffle these days). One reason it works as well as it does is – that old chestnut again – the running order, which seamlessly moves from reality to fantasy and only gets it wrong once (near the end when ‘Piece Of Crap’ destroys the mood of the past ten tracks only to go back in it again for final track ‘A Dream That Can Last’, it shoulda been a B-side) – allegedly this programming order was ‘discovered’ by producer David Briggs playing a dice game with his wife, while drunk (!) and lining up cassettes of finished mixes to play alongside each other in different combinations, which again harks back to the idea of a ‘spirit’ in the room at these recordings, tugging at this subconscious-filled record from the shadows. There are some unusual ghostly sounds here too, not least the tack piano – a sound Neil had never really used before but which dominates the album, a rickety old sound from yesteryear that’s the opposite of the feedbacking guitars that surround it. If ‘Tonight’s The Night, the album Neil himself wanted this record to resemble (down to the ink-black vinyl used by Reprise, the recycling of that album’s [76a] title track as a B-side and his thoughts that Kurt – born around the time he first met Danny – resembled his old friend in talent and looks) is ultimately the sound of a drunken wake where people are drinking spirits as much as talking to them, then ‘Sleeps With Angels’ is his real Halloween album with the ghosts at large tonight.  

I really don’t know why all the songs on this album have the same feel when the lyrics often couldn’t be more different (veering from the poetic to the brutally realistic) but they do, as if all the pieces here are telling the same tragic story, shot from slightly different angles. Like ‘Tonight’s all the characters on this album are losers struggling (you could make an exception for Cobain I guess but even he is a self-declared loser struggling). This is a world where things hard won for can be so easily and carelessly lost. Marriages come and go in the heartbeat it takes to ‘change your mind’ (an epic that’s surely about Neil’s continuing debate about leaving Pegi for Darryl which is by now all but splitting him in two). Lives are lost to suicide, accident and murder, not through design but by being unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Soldiers are changed forever by the fighting they witness firsthand, making them question all the belief systems they had in America before they left to die in some foreign land. Even plastic bags, in the album’s jokiest moment, last for five minutes of being useful before they break and are thrown away, left to rot on a mountainside for centuries before they biodegrade. The world is back to being a fragile place on ‘Sleeps With Angels’ and everyone on this album is struggling to cope – the millionaire musicians, the romantics, the passers-by.  

Like all good musicals and rock operas, the same sentences and even the same melodies keep returning from time to time. The first of these is the line ‘when you feel invincible, it’s just a part of life’ heard on ‘Driveby’ (where it sounds almost casual, despite coming after a verse about murder) and ‘Blue Eden’ (where it might well be the single scariest line you’ll ever hear). Secondly ‘It’s part of me and part of you’ is a line heard in both  ‘Blue Eden’ and ‘Train Of Love’, both of which seem to acknowledge both the frailty of life from here and what comes next (the former ‘jam’ is clearly a song about death, with two people meeting in the afterlife) and the obstinacy of keeping with outdated traditions (the steam train will always keep on rolling so the two friends in the song will always meet again as the train goes everywhere). Thirdly there’s Neil’s latest definition of the effects of love that runs through this whole album, shifting definitions from being virtuous (‘protecting you, restoring you, revealing you, soothing you’) to being negative (‘destroying you, confining you, controlling you’), heard in ‘Change Your Mind’ and ‘Blue Eden’ (again!) Uniquely in this whole site the two songs ‘Train Of Love’ and ‘Western Hero’ even have the exact same identical melodies, despite telling two very different stories about a tradition that restores hope to the faceless modern world and a pioneer ‘ahead’ of his time, trying to think differently to those around him with the prejudices of the age. Lazy songwriting? Or a sign of something deeper connecting the songs? Well, given this album’s long running time and the fact that Neil didn’t actually have to make an album at all that year with ‘Unplugged’ still high in the charts, I think laziness can be disregarded. These are songs that could have resulted in two very different paths for the characters whose lives could have been very different, just as the line ‘it’s better to burn out than to fade away’ worked and failed for two very different musicians and that adds to the depth of thought on this fascinating album. 

One other point that fans often miss about this album is how much of it there is. Considering that he’d just come off the back of three highly successful studio albums in four years (‘Freedom’ ‘Ragged Glory’ and ‘Harvest Moon’), you’d expect even a writer as prolific as Neil to back off a little bit and let the record buying public catch up with his output. But not this time: Neil seems to have had way too much to say on this album and even if you take the fourteen minutes of ‘Change Your Mind’ out of the equation then this would still have been one of Neil’s longest albums so far. I don’t think it’s any coincidence either that the album sleeve depicts the band in silhouette under a whole barrage of text from the album, as if the ideas are seeping out of Neil’s soul like a speech balloon. This is a man with a lot on his mind and, for better or worse, this album is packed with detail. What’s also interesting for fans collecting this stuff at the time is how different this is to predecessor ‘Harvest Moon’: OK so we should be used to Neil’s constant switching between genres as he’s done it nearly every album since 1968 but what’s different is the mood: ‘Sleeps’ is a young angry album rallying at the world whereas ‘Moon’ is a thoughtful, mature album about what it means to grow old and have your priorities change. Every Neil Young album is unique and different to what came before it, but this mood change is pretty huge even for him (just have a look at the covers: ‘Moon’ is a black and white nostalgia pic of Neil playing acoustic under a romantic moon – ‘Sleeps’ is an angry fiery orange behind a black silhouette with distinctly (then) modern lettering). 

One last point is that, unlike a majority of Neil’s songs, there are few tracks sung in the first person here. It’s as if Neil is an onlooker, powerless to control what the characters in the story get up to and sounding like a detached omniscient narrator throughout most of this album. The exceptions are the first and last tracks – the tack piano songs ‘My Heart’ and ‘A Dream That Can Last’, both of them near solo recordings about life and death respectively that give this album ‘heart’ – plus album centrepiece ‘Change Your Mind’ (a song from a different set of sessions entirely) and ‘Piece Of Crap’ (which is the one song that never really ‘fitted’ with the other songs here). Instead we have eight ‘story songs’ full of exotic characters and yet each one of them is in the ‘real’ world the listener will know or easily recognise (or did in 1994 at least), unlike the [127] Pocahontases, [130] Powderfingers, imagined Aztec kingdoms and three-headed birds of [135] ‘The Old Homestead’ which are Neil’s normal method of songwriting. These eight remaining songs are all about either sudden random acts of violence or acts of kindness and hope, a struggle between the dark and the light that begs the question all over again: ‘is it better to burn out?’, to be saved from the hardships and struggles of life? Or is it better to ‘fade away’, to carry on doing a job that might not seem to be fully appreciated but without which your life experience might be empty or half-full? Ultimately there is no resolution: the albums starts off with ‘My Heart’, a song about wanting to get somewhere and that life can be wonderful for some people but the realisation that it can also be hard for others; the album ends with ‘A Dream That Can Last’, a song about heaven where ‘the cupboards are bare, but the streets are paved with gold’. Ultimately even the narrator in heaven can’t escape hope for better things one day, with an angel in heaven telling him that ‘there will be a better life for me someday’ (perhaps when he returns to Earth?) In Neil’s vision, you cannot have the good separated from the bad: they’re all experiences and all a part of life and thinking that the grass is always greener elsewhere is a natural human reaction that simply isn’t true – ‘nothing is perfect’ is one of Neil’s favourite song phrases – but equally nothing is all bad either. Is it better to burn out than it is to rust? Neil doesn’t know, which is why he posed that idea as a question in the first place when he used it in 1979, not knowing people were going to quote it as a statement– and he refrains from making any judgement about Kurt’s decision, except choose not to make the same decision for himself. Perhaps the best answer came to the question came from Courtney Love, Kurt’s widow, that ‘when the fire goes out you better learn to fake, because it’s better to rise than to fade away’ (from the Hole CD ‘Reasons To Be Beautiful) – but then she would say that, given what loss that reading of one of the most famous lines in rock history caused her. 

I have decidedly mixed feelings about this fascinating but frustrating album. You have to work so hard at joining the pieces of this puzzle sometimes and this being Neil there’s nothing on the box to help you solve it (giving no interviews about the album doesn’t help, either). The performances are slovenly, compared to what came immediately before at least (though not as ragged as some of the Horse albums to come). Neil only sounds vocally switched on during the album’s lightest, silliest song ‘Piece Of Crap’, singing the rest in such a detached way he may as well be doing his tax returns. The unique recorder and tack piano playing both sound like they were recorded by a bunch of drunken toddlers on a day off from playschool. But on the other hand, no other Neil Young album manages to be so successful at giving off a vibe across a whole album (except, perhaps, ‘Tonight’s The Night’). To boot, this record isn’t as depressing or as monotonous as the three ‘doom trilogy’ records (although whether that makes it a more listenable experience or signs of selling out is open to debate). There’s some superb songwriting going on here, even when Neil’s barely trying (‘Blue Eden’ sounds like one of his deepest songs in years, even if it’s just a few recycled lyrics sung over a blues jam). This album is a real grower, a rare CD where every song has worth and where all twelve songs pull their weight in enhancing the album mood. There’s so much going on across this album that it could take a lifetime to uncover, in contrast to, say, ‘Everybody’s Rockin’ where you got everything you needed to know by looking at the cover. And Crazy Horse are rarely better than here, given just enough room to add their distinctive touches without the songs ever being quite shaped by anything or anyone, showing off their distinctive harmonies and ability to play unusual instruments as well as the stuff we know they can do (i.e. stretched out rock anthems). They belong in this universe of ‘death’ in a way they never quite did on ‘Life’. Where ‘Sleeps With Angels’ ultimately falls down against Neil’s best albums is that this is an intellectual debate going on, rather than an emotional plea as per the Doom trilogy or the simple naked honesty of parts of ‘After The Goldrush’, two albums that Neil clearly had a lot of personal involvement in. Neil never knew Kurt personally, despite the fact that Nirvana came close to being picked as the Horses’ warm up band during their American tour in the early 1990s, whereas he knew everything there was to know about Danny Whitten, one of his closest friends and this album is cerebral more often than it is emotional (and it’s a fact in rock and roll that 99 times out of 100 the albums that really burrow down deep into your soul will all be emotional ones that mean something to the people making them beyond crossword puzzles). That’s the true difference between ‘Sleeps’ and ‘Tonight’s The Night’, the difference between speculation and experience – and yet, that doesn’t stop this album from being one of the most electrifying, exciting, revealing and impressive things Neil’s ever recorded.     

The Songs:

‘Sleeps With Angels’ is by and large a loud and anxious album but it starts on a very gentle and peaceful note with [263] ‘My Heart’. Given that most people who bought this album when it came out were grunge fans mourning Cobain’s loss who didn’t necessarily know about Neil’s genre-switching, this opening track must have come as a bit of a shock. Was this really the Godfather of grunge? ‘My Heart’ is one of the sleepiest of Neil’s ballads, whose pretty tune is played on ramshackle block chords on an old-fashioned tack piano that resemble Nils Lofgren’s faltering work on ‘After The Goldrush’, with only some marimbas and ghostly harmonies from Crazy Horse at their prettiest for company. A fascinating song about admitting that life isn’t perfect but that moments inside it are perfect, this song is the one truly personal statement from Neil on this album and sounds as if its him giving his reasons for not reading his ‘burn out’ line the way Kurt Cobain read it. |Although the doubtful similar song that ends the album ‘A Dream That Can Last’ will rather undo the effect in an hour or so’s time, this is Neil at his most reverent, arguing against [110] ‘Star Of Bethlehem’ by pondering if there is a plan after all and that all he needs to put his life back on track is faith. The song starts with a shepherd herding a flock and that very star placed there by hand as ‘clues’ that better times are at hand. This person is surely Darryl Hannah, a figure whose missing from much of the album compared to the last few albums but whose presence lights up this record like a beacon of hope for Neil to reach out and get through any day for. Perhaps in reaction to the complaints in songs like [243] ‘Love To Burn’ that he wasn’t pushing hard enough, Neil admits in a song so naked it hurts that ‘I will take the lead, somehow’. Before he gets there, though, Neil has another wobble, wondering if love can ever be strong and powerful enough to fix everything that has gone wrong in his life, a ‘breeze’ compared to the ‘trees’ that will come crashing down if he makes his move final. For all its sudden anxious tics, however, this is a hopeful song, an Earthbound figure getting up the strength to believe that heaven awaits him after all when he has got through with his life problems (compare with the afterlife dance of [234] ‘Wrecking Ball’). The surely unique use of textures on this track (marimbas from South America, a tack piano from an old Western) also gives this song an ageless feel, as if it’s sentiments are something that’s been thought by people down the ages rather than just the present day. This is a truly remarkable song, among the best on the album, that’s all the better for the quiet contemplative mood and understated performance. If I had a criticism it’s that already, even this early in the album, Neil seems to be singing in a very cool and controlled way like an onlooker – whereas this is the one song on the album that badly needs him to have some emotional investment in singing. Still, this is a mighty strong album opener. 

Most fans don’t like [264] ‘Prime Of Life’, with its out-of-tune recorder playing (surely not a ‘flute’ as is usually suggested) and its elliptical lyrics and many have questioned why Neil chose to use it as the lead track for his ‘video EP’ of 1993 (along with ‘My Heart’ ‘Piece Of Crap’ and a version of ‘Change Your Mind’ that went on for even longer than the album version!) But I think it’s the highlight of the entire album, with a haunted ever-changing melody that hops about from chord to chord at random in a panic and contains some of the most fascinating words Neil ever wrote. The song starts with one of the scariest explanations of Spring turning into Autumn ever written (‘shadows climb up the garden wall, upon the green the first leaf falls’, a reflection perhaps of the sad ‘I’m so happy I can’t speak’ line from [46] ‘Out On The Weekend’) and a king and queen stepping out into the ‘sunlight’ to inspect their lands in such a mournful way it sounds as if it will be their last (intriguingly it recalls the moment from ‘Camelot’, both musical and legend, when Lancelot is on the scene and Arthur is bidding a tender goodbye because he knows that despite his power he’s going to lose in this ménage a trois opening up before him, with Neil perhaps in the Queen Guinevere role). It is surely the sound of someone at the peak of their fame who doesn’t like it and who after his experiences with Danny Whitten and the ‘Doom Trilogy’ is waiting anxiously for something to go wrong. I’m sure all of you reading this will know the feeling where you seem to have a run of good luck and yet know instantly, to the second, when things are about to go wrong and collapse around you again. This song is Neil’s hymn to this feeling: not just the ‘prime of life’ as the moment just before that collapse when you can’t get any higher and have nowhere to go but down with a bump. This is a fascinating concept, perfect for such a paranoid ghostly album and Neil’s shrill recorder playing makes it sound very other-worldly and the opening verse is one of Neil’s best for sheer poetry. I wish Neil had written more verses to go with the two here though (and even the second, about a room with ‘paper dolls’, isn’t up to the first) and the chorus of ‘are you feeling alright? Not feeling too bad myself’, whilst fitting, isn’t worthy of that strong opening. But for a minute there this song really flies – and it does again in a chilling middle eight when against all odds this song finally roots itself to a key and chooses a happy major one for a memory of a first meeting before things went sour (‘When I first saw your face it took my breath away…’) before Neil seems to chicken out of going somewhere quite this dark. Even though you have to work at it, this is a rewarding song about change that sounds not too far removed from The Buffalo Springfield’s big rivals The Byrds’ towering achievement ‘Change Is Now’ (from ‘Younger Than Yesterday’) where nothing is still and life is always on the move, with a tune and chord changes that never settle for longer than a second. A most excellent song, quite unlike any others Neil ever wrote, it also features a cracking performance with Neil actually sounding as if he’s going for a proper ‘take’ rather than just a rehearsal and the Horse backing him all the way, alternating their typical criss-crossing harmonies with doubling the lead at key spots throughout the song. Not just the prime of life, but the prime of Neil’s career in the 1990s – the only thing preventing this from being perfect is that bleeding recorder and even that kinda fits!

[265] ‘Driveby’ is a third strong song in a row on a piece that recalls [86] ‘Tired Eyes’, with a detached and eerily calm performance that makes this tale about a seemingly random driveby shooting even more alarming than it does when you read it. Given that this album is all about the debate between whether long life or a quick death whilst young is better, this is a sideways song about the horror of not being able to choose that decision for yourself, but that life is so precious precisely because you could die young in an accident or murder (at least, this song sounds like a ‘driveby shooting’ but Neil’s more concerned with what happens to the body than what happened). There’s some very moving imagery in this song, the young girl dying ‘like a shooting star’, equating her death with the traditional view of Heaven as being in the sky by one who was really special, but also perhaps a description of the physical effects of her death. The song ends with the line ‘there’s a feud going on and you don’t know’ – with the horror as much that the girl died without knowing why as that she had to die at all. The key line of the song though is ‘when you feel invincible, it’s just a part of life’, reiterating the last track’s ideas that when you think you have reached the top there is always something to pull you down, though hopefully not as finally as in this song. The melody for this song is long and slow, like a slow-motion shot of the death and with Neil’s piano taking centre stage like a funeral requiem, despite the odd startling shocks of growly feedback-filled guitar. Too slow to some fan’s tastes, too grizzly for others, this is nevertheless an important song that’s all the better for the world-weary performance the Horse give it here, with a song about loss that’s purely in mourning rather than angry or accusatory as Neil might be on other albums. Once again, at three short verses it is perhaps just a fraction too short to have the gravitas it needs – for a second track in a row it is though only another verse away from being amongst the greatest things in Neil’s back catalogue. 

The title track of [266] ‘Sleeps With Angels’ added at the last minute was the most-talked about on the album, with Neil repaying the debt for what Nirvana ‘stole’ from his sound by channelling a riff and a blurry performance that could easily have been mistaken for ‘In Utero’ era Cobain. It actually took one hell of a long time to get right and the song went through three weeks’ worth of changes and overdubs before Neil gave up, took a break and happened to listen to a sketchy ‘monitor mix’ an engineer had made on day one back when the song was new and the suicide still fresh. The low tape quality and the sudden unexpected ending (‘tonight!’) are a happy accident – originally this song had a much longer ending but the brevity and poor sound quality really suit this song about not so much Cobain’s death as much as Courtney Love’s desperate, confused actions after he’d gone. Neil feels responsible: he can’t do anything about Kurt but he knows what it’s like to lose someone young that you were close to and he feels Courtney’s pain as best he can as he re-creates press reports of her ‘running up phone bills’ and walking round confused, lost. The way Neil sees it the boyfriend and girlfriend of grunge had the same background,  but only one chose to end their life prematurely and he clearly identifies more with Courtney, a survivor to the end despite ‘not being perfect’ and ‘having trips of her own’. Courtney has allegedly hated Neil for writing that line ever since 1994 – let’s hope somebody plays her this song one day so she can hear his true take on Kurt’s decision. Most fans go cock-a-hoop at hearing the Horse at their grungiest and acknowledge how like Nirvana this song is, all out-of-tune vocals and quick stabbing guitar riffs, but despite proving how much better a guitar player Neil Young is than Cobain I really don’t like this style, which is less emotional and less studied than Neil’s usual songs, even if it does a good job of telling the Cobain story as it happened. Neil sounds guilty here, singing in the angry, loud but detached manner of the grunge movement and adding some ghostly falsetto lines over the top in what were clearly here purely as ‘guide vocals’ that were intended to be cleaned up later. Oddly enough its Billy and Ralph who sound happier in this home than either of the guitarists, turning in a great performance as Talbot fills in the holes in the song when it lightens up and Molina right on the money as he socks the song home just as it seems to be running out of steam into the last chorus. For a third song in a row, I could also have done with another verse – with just two this song seems to fizzle out just when it’s going, although full marks for the angular riff that underpins the song, which manages to sound like turmoil and anger and depression all at once. The lines ‘too soon, too early’ drowned out in this mix but a big part of the song live (and reprinted for extra shock factor on the album cover) should also have played a bigger part in the song, sounding like a cross between a jury and Kurt’s loved ones and playing up to this album’s other theme that each of us have a set time when we leave the planet because we’ve experienced everything we need to learn.

[267] ‘Western Hero’ takes u out of the present and back to the past, an aching love song not to a person but to a way of life, a hymn to pioneers across the ages who help to bring their towns and their generations out of the dark ages into a time when life is better for all. In the first verse the ‘western hero’ is a cowboy out preaching the idea of justice to a town that doesn’t have it; the second verse is a soldier at Normandy in WWII fighting for freedom – but worse than giving up their lives both men are just a ‘memory’ in the present age, two souls who are barely remembered despite shaping so much of our current lives. Even for an album about death this song is a revealing one, with both men going through such changes in such a short time that they really have learnt everything they need to learn before they die. Neil’s hint here seems to be that suicide victims haven’t yet gone through all the stages of learning, that he himself is continuing to grow so what chance do his friends in their twenties have of understanding that life is meant to be long and full of ups and downs (‘Through the years he changed somehow, he’s different now’). However, Neil’s singing in that curiously detached way again and it really doesn’t suit the song which seems to zip by unnoticed (not least because we’ll be getting the exact same tune again in four songs time). Neil’s also a little too full of his characters here, painting them as simple ‘heroes’ in a comic-book way despite this album’s overall message that no one is all good or all evil. There’s a nice burst of controlled feedback that comes into the song near to the end that livens things up no end but, that aside, there isn’t really much variety on offer here for a song which is one of the weakest of this bunch. Still pretty darn good, mind.  

[268] ‘Change Your Mind’ is the huge, sprawling song that’s central to this album and indeed Neil’s thoughts of the times as he’s caught in the tug-of-war between Pegi and Darryl. This is such a big deal for Neil that the song runs for a full 14:39 (the longest Neil Young studio song to date, despite some fierce competition). It’s the only song on this album that uses the Crazy Horse trick of improvising round a simple song a verse at the time, to make the simple sound profound (it’s at its best in [27] ‘Down By The River’ and [247] ‘Love And Only Love’). This isn’t the best song the Horse did like this but nor is it the worst, with this hymn to love from the album’s earliest sessions from late 1993 still fitting to the album’s themes about there being something in life to hang on to. Love, though, isn’t a reliable safety blanket but something that’s always on the move, switching (between verses and some nifty solos) from something that’s ‘supporting’ to something that’s ‘controlling’ and Neil can’t work out which version of ‘love’ he feels is the real one – the feeling of support and devotion to the past or the thrill of the chase and the wild in the future. This is different to most songs of love, which have it as fate decreed that two lovers would get together (except for a small handful when they are doomed to live apart). This song, though, finds love twice over and can’t decide which is the more ‘real’, with Neil changing his mind several times acriss the song. For quite a few albums now Neil has paced up and down pondering this problem and now suddenly it explodes across a whole song that sees him change his mind umpteen times, often with a guitar solo attached. It’s as if Neil is showing us how, for long passages of his life, he genuinely feels close to one or the other before something goes wrong and he panics, turning to the other again via solos that are by turns lustful, scared, paranoid, proud and supportive. Each time that familiar chorus comes in Neil thinks he’s found the love he craves as it ‘protects’ ‘restores’ ‘heals’ ‘supports’ ‘embraces’ and ‘soothes’ him, but all it takes is one critical line (‘distracting’ ‘destroying’ ‘confining’ ‘controlling’) and it causes him to go on the run again back to the ‘other’ lover.   Neil was ‘weak’, his life ‘complete but with something missing still’ so he reached out to what he thought was love. Next thing he knows he’s confused and lost, wanting to get back to the comfort he once had. A third verse has him distracted again by ‘the sound’ and a ‘picture changing everything you’ve heard’ as he gets his hopes up again. A fourth verse then tells us that we’ll know love when we’ve experienced it and smelt its ‘odour lingering in the room’ and how each one of us deserves the ‘magic touch’ of what it really means to be loved. However what decision does Neil make? He still doesn’t know even by the end of this lengthy song and will be asking the same question for quite a few albums yet. 

Like ‘Prime of Life’, this song about change is always shifting musically too, mainly thanks to Billy Talbot’s simple shift from one note to the other all the way through the song, the aural equivalent of hopping from one foot to the other, while the rest of the Hose go crazy around him. Poncho Sampredro is at his absolute best in this song, playing a rhythm part that’s heavily tied to the beat but sensitive enough to what Neil’s playing to reflect it and this is I think the single best Horse performance on record since Danny Whitten’s death (Ralph Molina’s playing is of course always superb when Neil’s not just treating him as a metronome). By the end of 14 whole minutes Crazy Horse have become hypnotic, with the song more like a mantra than a song and the final rousing extended chorus comes as something of a relief (just this last verse seems to last for longer than most songs on this record!)  I think most fans will agree with me that 14 minutes is a couple too many though and that the last bit of improv between the last two verses is especially something of a drag to sit through, but for the most part this simple song is a success, with a strong band performance making a promising song sound great. Certainly play it back to any of the similarly extended songs on 1997’s ‘Broken Arrow’ and even most of 1990’s well-received ‘Ragged Glory’ where most of the songs are near to this length and this one is both a more fitting song to be extended and better performed. 

[269] ‘Blue Eden’ is another of my favourite songs on the album, even though it’s clearly a jam that came out of the last track rather than a fully blown song (the only one here credited to all the band) and borrows words and tunes heavily from others on the album. In many ways it’s like an overture to the album to begin the album’s second side, with a slowed down bluesy version of ‘Change Your Mind’ sounding far more sarcastic than that largely comforting song. Here Neil sings snatches from other songs over the top as rather than getting more and more mellow as he does on ‘Change Your Mind’ he gets frustrated. Why should he have to choose? Why can’t both his significant others give him the whole of what he wants? Instead of the lines of devotion and support we get the nastier chorus of ‘Change Your Mind’ (‘Distorting you, controlling you, destroying you!’) Neil sounds older now, less sure that he’s going to find an answer and sounds instead like a trapped animal desperate to find a way out of his confusion one way or the other. By now the changes are coming so suddenly lyrically that he baulks at the challenge to make a decision and instead stays firmly rooted to the spot on a song bluesier and darker than anything from ‘On The Beach’. I love the sound of this song that seems to explode out of nowhere as Billy and Ralph chug away, Frank tries to nudge the song on with some truly brilliant improvises as he gets the ‘lead’ or at any rate the busier role for a change and shines, while Neil is left to primally howl on one note of pain, sounding as if he’s trapped in a tug-of-war with the rest of the band trying to move him on. Neil’s vocal is a delight too, so real and alive in the middle of the album where he mostly sings on auto-pilot. Neil is saying goodbye to someone, but which of his romances it is is made unclear, telling them ‘I know someday we’ll meet again’ and returning to the lyric of ‘Western Hero’ as he sings about cycles and how ‘we come and go that way my friend’. The result is a song that’s quite unlike anything else on this album and here, as track seven of twelve, gives the ‘heart’ of the album, the emotion that goes with all that discussion. The name picked for the song is particularly fascinating – ‘Eden’, of course, is the Garden of Eden, but ‘blue’ suggests that something’s gone wrong, as if Neil had the chance at true happiness but screwed it up through temptation (though which way he screwed up and which girlfriend he means is of course unspoken). You probably wouldn’t want to play ‘Blue Eden’ that many times on its own but for the five minutes it’s around this song is one of the best tracks here and will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end as if you’ve just seen a ghost, haunted even by this album’s standards.

[270] ‘Safeway Cart’ is back to the more finished yet slowed down, detached sound of most of the album. The words are some of the most obscure Neil’s ever written but seem to deal with a group of very different people who think their life is good for naught but are in fact ‘wasting’ it, staring at the TV all day in a ‘ghetto dawn’ when they could be offering so much more to the world. The title, which seems to contain such a depth of hidden meanings, is probably nothing more than a trolley from the supermarket Safeways with all the everyday actions of life passing in one uncomfortable blur where nothing of any importance seems to happen but which in context sounds like a big deal. It’s the little obstacles in life that get us down and add up to prevent us from being the perfect loving human beings we want to be. Hence, I think, the confusing reference to a ‘sandal mark’ on the ‘saviour’s feet’ or the talented creative who has to shop to feed himself when he could be writing a symphony: these grindingly dull experiences might be what bring us down in the end, but they’re not what really kills us, or shouldn’t be. Yet this is still the death-cry of a whole generation of people with nothing to aim for or live for – and who might as well be dead for all the pleasure life gives them, getting by on automatic. Neil’s reaction to all this? Like the cart we push ‘just keep rolling on’. To be honest, this is one of those songs that could be about anything but it clearly holds some kind of a deep meaning for Neil, who gives this song one of the tightest and clearest productions on the record, as well as a simple nursery-rhyme style melody that seems to sit in contrast with how simple the words are. The one part of this confusing song that does work so well is Neil’s heavily feedback drenched harmonica playing, something that sounds part wounded animal, part horror movie, part ambulance siren call for help that doesn’t come (another key Neil Young image – and its not for nothing this album gets compared a lot to ‘On The Beach’ with the track [75] ‘Ambulance Blues’). While Neil scratches at his guitar Sampedro holds the song together on organ, Billy alternates between languid and busy and Ralph gives the song the distinctive clutter of what sounds ;like a ghost in chains falling down the stairs in slow motion. A fascinating, complex song full of hidden shadows and whispers about boredom played in a bored but spooky and tense sounding way that somehow manages to never be boring, that’s quite a feat!

[271] ‘Train Of Love’ seems like déjà vu the first time you hear it, repeating the exact same tune as ‘Western Hero’, with Neil singing in exactly the same falsetto detached manner and playing what sounds like it might well be the same backing track (now that’s recycling for you, fittingly given what we get in two tracks’ time!) What’s clever about this song is that lyrically it’s the opposite of what came before, something that doesn’t strike you until later (what other songwriter would ever think to do this?) The last song was a piece where heroes were once so very alive and reliable, even if they are forgotten now. On this song, though, the narrator is alive right now but might as well be dead, confused as to the next move he makes. The most he can hope for is to keep going and hope for the best, allowing the train of life to take him where it will – only in retrospect will it become clear if he is exonerated as a hero with statues erected to him or if he’ll be just another loser who had it all and threw it all away. This world might not be as explosive but it’s a lot harder to tell right from wrong and fight for it, a world of change where nothing is reliable and everything is unstable – everything except the anachronistic steam train that still carries on its tired old journey, so much a part of the narrator’s lives that ‘it’s part of me and part of you’. Neil reaffirms his vows at one point, repeating that ‘to love and honour till death do us part, this train ain’t ever going back’. However even then he straight away sings about how when it comes to it and ‘that lonely whistle blows, no one knows’ what they will do. My guess is that there may be more at the heart of this song – this isn’t a straight up fight between the new girlfriend and the ex but the baggage that comes with them both. For those who don’t know, Neil is a passionate collector of model trains – so much so that he became a partner in the  model making firm Lionel and whose priciest trains still carry an invention of Neil’s that include a pre-recorded micro-chip of all the real sounds each model makes. Trains aren’t just a hobby though –they became the best means of communication between father and son when Ben was born with cerebral palsy. On [154] ‘Transformer Man’ love came at a ‘push of a button’, through a shared activity that both generations could enjoy together. Here ‘Train Of Love’ has Neil choosing to stay put as much to see his son regularly as out of love for his wife, with the idea that Ben is his ‘Western Hero’, the brave soul whose coped with so many explosions in his young life already that Neil doesn’t want to add to his burden. Neil even seems to nick a bit from ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ as he promises to be there for his son, with the line ‘sail along silver moon’. What’s odd is the way that this song about stability and family life is sung so dispassionately, as if Neil might as well be singing about a hunk of metal than something that’s brought him closer to a family member. Then again, maybe he’s trying not to cry and to stay as robotic as he was on ‘Trans’ so his son can better understand his words. Sweet but not as inventive or as compelling as the other songs on the album, ‘Train Of Love’ rather flows by without you noticing and suffers from coming on the same album as ‘Western Hero’, less an object of love than an object in the background unless you fully invest in Neil and his life.

[272] ‘Trans Am’ continues the train theme, on a rambling sleepy Western that reads in the lyric booklet more like chapters than verses, sounding not unlike a Steinbeck novel about the ‘old west’. There’s a massacre taking place somewhere here, with the ‘Trans Am’ acting as both a haven of peace and the transport that takes the characters to their doom and again Neil is so into his trains he spends most of the song describing the Trans Am transporter rather than getting on with the plot. There’s an intriguing third verse that either jumps forward in time or reveals that we were in the present all along, with the ‘massacres’ merely a colourful way for two businessmen to speak and the ‘Trans Am’ not a work of beauty or a source of respite from war but a mere commodity, made to make money no matter how beautiful it is. I wonder if Neil was trying to re-write David Crosby’s ‘Cowboy Movie’ here, a song that treated the CSNY story like a Western. In that song Neil was ‘Young Billy’, a sentry who runs off when things get ugly between Stills and Nash dating the same girl (Rita Coolidge). Here Neil, typically, is less interested in people or the soap opera aspect and instead this song gives him the chance to cast himself as Merle the engine driver. He hears tales of murder, he views with his own eyes the ‘broken gates of Eden Park’, watches his gorgeous trains get broken and scratched with their angel motif hanging from a carriage in a cleverly drawn sequence, but in the end he’s just a worker doing a job, moving down the road to patch up another broken-down train.  It’s hard to know quite what else Neil means by this song – is he playing great explorer, is this song him escaping the CSNY train crash or this another rumination on the difficulties he can see coming in his lovelife showdown? Neil, typically, is more interested in describing the Trans Am engine than he is explaining why he wrote this atmospheric track. This is one of the better train songs around with a delightful scratchy guitar sound (similar to Neil’s genuine Western soundtrack for the ‘Dead Man’ movie that made a star of Johnny Depp – did this song help win him the deal with director Jim Jarmusch?) that suits this peaceful yet creepy song. Crazy Horse add some lovely harmonies to this track too, although Neil’s mumbling lead vocal is hard to hear. The band will later turn this song into a whole album, ‘Greendale’, full of the same mumbling low key vibes and rambling story songs, but none of the songs on that album are a patch on this under-rated original that’s hugely overlooked even by this album’s standards. 

[273] ‘Piece Of Crap’ is the joker in the pack as yet another Young album gets silly before lights out, a loud and noisy song about consumerism and capitalism that seems to belong to a different album altogether, not least the fact that Neil suddenly sounds alive here (on arguably the least personal song on the album!) This throwaway song is actually better heard on the ‘Video EP’ where it acts as a peaceful antidote to ‘Change Your Mind’ (Neil sticks out his tongue and pulls a face behind the back of the poor scene announcer, the funniest single moment in Neil’s television career). Neil’s narrator moans in passing verses about a plastic bag getting a hole, being conned into buying a new high tech gadget that doesn’t work or do what he wants it to do, the fact that so many trees died to give mankind yet another thing it doesn’t really need and that when Neil goes back to complain they give him four new carrier bags – all with the same problem. It’s little frustrations like this that humans get all out of proportion and can cause us to go the way of Kurt Cobain, so it’s interesting that Neil should sound more involved with this song than the deeper songs on the album. Ultimately, though, this fiery obscenity filled rocker is about an important subject too, as the Wall Street and St Paul’s protestors will tell you: the stupidities of Capitalism, which tries to make you buy something you don’t really need or want in order to make money for someone else to buy something they don’t need or want. He may also of course be making a bigger ecological plea as this song fits in well with other albums like ‘The Monsanto years’ and damage to the environment, but Neil is happier to joke than to preach here.  Some things in life accidentally gain a kind of reverence despite being built purely to do a job (like the Trans Am for instance), but most capitalist–made items are designed to fall apart and not last. The best part of this song is Neil’s angry guitar solo close to the end of the song, which turns it from being an angry thrash punk little rocker into something more musical and more powerful, although Billy’s snarled yell ‘Piece of Crap!’ at the end, when everyone else has finished, cuts it close. A better song than many people realise, though it doesn’t feel like it belongs on ‘Sleeps With Angels’ at all, having sent the ghosts scurrying out of the room with its sheer noise – like [249] ‘Don’t Spook The Horse’ it should have been a B-side. 

The album then ends with the ghostly [274] ‘A Dream That Can Last, a song that’s so loosely formed that you even get a snatch of Neil testing out his tack piano at the start and making sure it’s tuned. That’s suitable for a song that’s about a character ending up in Heaven before he’s ready and who finds that, after longing for it his whole life, it’s not what he hoped for. This is a typical way for this album about heroes being fallible and life’s frustrations not getting you down to end, but also ends the album on an oddly grumpy note following the dreams of ‘My Heart’, a song with which it shares the tack piano and much of the melody (a ‘before’ and ‘after’ shot in many ways). I wonder, too, if it’s Neil imagining his life with Darryl as opposed to the one he knows with Pegi – one that would be more exciting, but less cosy or domesticated as his girlfriends offer him very different things. In one of the album’s best lines in this [234] ‘Wrecking Ball’ Heaven ‘the cupboards are bare, though the streets are paved with gold’ –he’s just traded in one thing that was hard to find for something he needed to exist. This Heaven is wider than just Neil though and has what he misses so much on Earth: order.  In this afterlife ‘no one wonders where to go’ and at first that seems wonderful, but without that doubt, without that debate, everyone there is a  robot, moving to a pre-planned idea of how to behave. Neil ends the song dreaming of another better world so hard that an angel takes pity on him and moves him on once again, perhaps the ones that greeted Kurt Cobain in the album’s title track. This great set of lyrics is sadly under-served by a rather boring and monotonous tune that doesn’t do the wonders with a few chords that ‘#My Heart’ did and manages to be both trite and badly played, with Neil messing up the riff quite a few times over, the one song on the album that could have done with a re-make and longer in the creative oven. Neil’s drunken harmonica playing doesn’t help either! Still, as a song if not a recording it’s a triumphant end to a memorable album.      

There’s long been debate about whether rock and roll is ‘God’s’ music or ‘the devil’s music’, whether its use is for good or for bad. As a postscript to this review I thought I’d quote one of Neil’s best observations, that rock and roll is where ‘God and the devil shake hands’, both sides of the coin recognising something of themselves in the greatest art form on Earth (and maybe in Heaven too). Life can be brutal, events can conspire to destroy your life and hurt you to such an extent that looking forward to another world prematurely seems the only way forward when you can’t handle the one you have. But equally life can be triumphant, full of glorious surprises and love that comes out of nowhere and gives purpose and meaning to even the most directionless of lives. Neil’s spent over an hour trying to answer the question he first posed in 1979: is it truly better to burn out than it is to rust? He still doesn’t know because sometimes it is – and sometimes it isn’t. Life is messy, life is complicated, life is a struggle and Neil fully knows why Kurt Cobain would want to go rather than hurt his reputation or music – but he also knows that situations can change and that to throw away your life and lose any potential of what you could become before you had a full chance to try it, that’s taking things too far. This argument is a fascinating and brave one that few other artists besides Neil Young could ever have taken on and it’s to his and Crazy Horse’s credit that they handle the discussion with so much pathos, understanding, sympathy and love. Because of the detached way with which it is performed, ‘Sleeps With Angels’ is not as immediate or as moving as ‘Tonight’s The Night’, it doesn’t have the simply stunning guitarwork of ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ and it’s not a commercial album released at just the right time to get noticed like ‘Ragged Glory’. But it is a hugely impressive album, full of some of Neil’s darkest tracks and some of his best and most detailed work that’s amongst one of his most under-rated and neglected despite being his beste-selling in over twenty years. In short, it’s exactly the sort of thing Cobain should have been doing in his middle age – the fact that Neil could navigate his way through the superstardom of ‘After The Goldrush’ and ‘Harvest’ and still write thrilling, inventive albums like this one in all those years on says much for Neil’s ebullient spirit, just as Cobain’s decision to end his life says much about his despair. A most fascinating record that might not contain any of Neil’s top tier classics but is in many ways his most consistent and certainly amongst his most groundbreaking, with the added bonus that of all the albums since ‘Everybody Knows’ this is the one that uses Crazy Horse’s spooky telepathy, slow tempos and sheer guts the best.

A now complete list of Neil Young and related articles at Alan’s Album Archives:

'Neil Young' (1968)

'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' (1969)

‘After The Goldrush’ (1970)

'Harvest' (1972)

'Time Fades Away' (1973)

'On The Beach' (1974)

'Zuma' (1975)

'American Stars 'n' Bars' (1977)

'Comes A Time' (1978)

'Rust Never Sleeps' (1979)

'Hawks and Doves' (1980)

'RelAclTor' (1981)

'Trans' (1982)

'Everybody's Rockin' (1983)

'Old Ways' (1985)

‘Landing On Water’ (1986)

‘This Note’s For You’ (1988)

'Freedom' (1988)

'Ragged Glory' (1990)

'Weld' (1991)

'Harvest Moon' (1992)

'Sleeps With Angels' (1993)

'Mirror Ball' (1995)

‘Silver and Gold’ (2000)

‘Are You Passionate?’ (2002)

'Greendale' (2003)

‘Prairie Wind’(2005)

‘Living With War’ (2006)

‘Chrome Dreams II’ (2007)

'Fork In The Road' (2009)

'Le Noise' (2011)

'A Treasure' (1986/2012)

'Storytone' (2014)

'The Monsanto Years' (2015)

Live/Compilation/Crazy Horse Albums Part One 1968-1972

Live/Compilation/Crazy Horse Albums Part Two 1977-2016

Surviving TV Clips 1970-2016

Neil Essay: Will To Love – Spiritualism and The Unseen In Neil’s Music

No comments:

Post a Comment