Sleeps With Angels

Sleeps With Angels Album Cover

Neil Young & Crazy Horse

Review by Mark Johnson

Neil Young News

Sleeps With Angels -- Reviewed By Mark Johnson

Neil Young and Crazy Horse _Sleeps With Angels_
Rating: ***** (5 Stars Out Of Five)
1994 Reprise Records (Time-Warner)
Formats: CD, Cassette, and LP (Reviewed from CD)
Time: 62:53
Selections: 12 Tracks Ranging From 2:44 to 14:40
Overview: Strong possibility that this will end up on a lot of people's "best of the year" lists, but some hardcore Neil Young and Crazy Horse fans might be alienated by new directions. Overall a stellar effort with some strange, disturbing undercurrents.


1) My Heart (2:44)
2) Prime of Life (4:05)
3) Driveby (4:45)
4) Sleeps With Angels (2:46)
5) Western Hero (4:00)
6) Change Your Mind (14:40)
7) Blue Eden (6:23)
8) Safeway Cart (6:33)
9) Train of Love (4:00)
10) Trans Am (4:07)
11) Piece of Crap (3:16)
12) A Dream That Can Last (5:32)

- Side 1 (1-6)
- Side 2 (7-12)

- Side 1 (1-5)
- Side 2 (6)
- Side 3 (7-8)
- Side 4 (9-12)

Neil Young
Frank "Poncho" Sampedro
Billy Talbot
Ralph Molina

After Neil Young's recent success with the accessible folk-pop of Harvest Moon and his Unplugged CDs, it was almost predictable that he would return to Crazy Horse for an album. The fact that Neil Young and Crazy Horse would produce an album like Sleeps
With Angels is anything but predictable. America's recent penchant for straight forward hard rock would seem like a perfect opportunity for Neil to engage in a grungefest like 1990's Ragged Glory and 1991's live Arc-Weld set. It was not to be, though a few tracks shine in punk rock glory, this album simultaneously explores vast new territories for Neil to mine in the future as well as nodding to past achievements. Overall, the effect is unsettling, but one that anyone who is interested in real rock music should hear immediately.

The album starts off with, of all things, a lullaby. "My Heart" is a simple song that offers Neil's simple plea "My heart, my heart/I've got to keep my heart/It's not too late, it's not too late/I've got to keep my heart." Over the next hour, Neil shows the blistering reality against which his plea must be heard, a reality of a young girl killed in a driveby shooting, a reality of rock-star suicide, of ghetto life and a society that sells you the world but gives you nothing but a piece of crap. Very little in the Neil's previous canon sounds like "My Heart", only "Lost In Space" has been bandied about as a possible comparison. Being played on an old fashion western saloon tack piano and with accompaniment of marimba and vibes, this at first seems like a strange begining to a rock album. But Neil is creating a theme album and once you hear the complete album, you can't imagine any other song starting off this collection.

"Prime of Life" marks another first in terms of instrumentation featuring Neil on Tibetan flute. Musically, the song is a lot more funky than anything he has done. Normally when aging white male guitar players trot out the mild funkish pop songs, it is a
sign of trouble, but this one works despite my intial reservations. The guitar work here is subtle, but effective, almost conjuring up visions of Neil's solo debut as well as his better '87-'88 material. A good pop song by an artist who spent over a decade doing everything BUT pop music. Lyrically, this song seems to be saying that you can get through life without burning out or fading away. A very important message.

"Driveby" takes the album out of the middle of the road and heads straight for the ditch. The inspiration for this song was a little girl that Neil knew who was killed in a driveby shooting. Like Neil's first ditch period (Tonight's the Night/Time Fades Away/On The Beach), this song is one of pure emotion. This song was one of the reasons that Neil plans to do know promotion for this album, it is simply too personal. It is an incredibly sad song that seems to point out the contradictions in this tragic world of quick, unforseen death, it is the total opposite of "Prime of Life", but it is followed up with a song that seems to bury the idea of that song.

"Sleeps With Angels" is obviously about Kurt Cobain's suicide. But Neil evokes Kurt without ever mentioning names or specifics. It is a terrifying song of feedback and distorted vocals. Totally harrowing, but essential listening. I was sceptical before hearing it, but Neil is sympathetic without being exploitive. This seems to be because Kurt's suicide hit so close to home for Neil. Neil had been trying to get in contract with Kurt the day before his suicide with no luck. In his suicide note, Kurt quoted from Neil Young's song "Hey Hey, My My"... "It is better to burn out than to fade away." The spirit of this song hangs over the entire album. Probably the song of the year, but you can bet you will never hear it on the radio or MTV.

"Western Hero" takes a totally different direction. This song shares the same melody and nearly identical arrangement with a later song on the album, "Train of Love." They seem to be bookending the 6th, 7th, and 8th songs which for the second act in this drama. "Western Hero" seems to be hinting at all kinds of things without ever saying them. "And on the shores at Normandy/He fought for you, he fought for me/Across the land and on the sea/But now he's just a memory."

"Change Your Mind" is easily one of Neil's best long songs ever. Unlike Crazy Horse epics of the past twenty years, this song strips off all the distortion and gets to the heart of the song. Neil is about the only rock star I know who can take a normal rock song structure and stretch it out for nearly fifteen minutes without becoming repetitive or boring. This song has been edited down for radio play in the United States, totally understandable, but you need to hear the whole thing to truly appreciate it.

"Blue Eden" combines lyrics from three different songs on the album. It starts off where "Change Your Mind" left off and then picks up a bit of the chorus of "Train of Love" and concludes with words from the last verse of "Driveby." Neil puts some of his trademark feedback/distortion into the mix, creating a work reminisent of his best from On The Beach. However, the song is so strange, sporting no original lyrics that one almost could think that it is a throwaway. On the other hand, it seems to be the emotional core of the album, revealing the compelling truth in the guitar playing. My guess that it is a lot of both, Neil tends to be that way.

"Safeway Cart" is more of a "This Note's For You" type song like "Twilight" minus the horns, featuring a baffling set of almost mystical, perhaps religious lyrics. Dark and obscure, this song seems to be a favorite of the hardcore Neil fanatics. I would be interested to know what outsiders think of this song. This song, along with "Change Your Mind" and "Blue Eden" seem to form a 28 minute trilogy that lies at the center of this album. I am not totally sure how it fits in, but it definitely seems to conclude this part of the album.

"Train of Love" is immediately familiar from the moment you hear it. It seems to be the begining of the third and final act of the drama. Reprising the melody of "Western Hero", including a very similar arrangement in the Harvest mode, Neil sings one of his best ballads ever. Normally a song like this would not appear on a Crazy Horse album, and it would have fit just fine on Harvest Moon. Neil seems to be getting away from the tragedy of the first act, and the darkness of the second and is trying to find away to cope with the madness in the world. Still the possibility for tragedy is there "To love and honor 'til death do us part/Repeat after me"

"Trans Am" is a Dylanesque song in the mode of "Last Trip To Tulsa" with a bit of "Ordinary People" thrown in. I haven't quite figured out what it is about. It might be about a post-apocalyptic world or the flip-side of "Driveby". It definitely fits in with the album sharing lyrical references with other songs. I would love to hear this one done as a full tilt rocker, some slashing Neil feedback distortion flurry would work well here, but it is great as it is.

"Piece of Crap" is a humorous gibe at comercialism. This is Crazy Horse in "Fuckin' Up"/"T- Bone" mode. Neil usually puts a song like this on every album, the exception that proves the rule. It is a pure low-fi punk blast of energy and attitude. Strangely, it fits just fine here. I have heard that this song is being promoted in Europe as the single/radio track. It is great, but there is little on the album that resembles it.

"A Dream That Can Last" pulls it all together, ending where "My Heart" left off. It features the same Tack piano as the first track, but here it is much more sublime. The dream is heaven, the final peace. Let's hope Cobain found his.

Sleeps With Angels is simply the best album out there at the moment. It will probably go unnoticed by the public at large since Neil is doing no promotion for it and it is not particularly commercial. But no doubt it has already created its own special niche in the rock history alongside Tonight's the Night. A lot of the album is depressing, but a lot of it offers promise and hope. Like a great novel, Sleeps With Angels offers you an insight into the human condition, not dictating answers, but dangling possibilities out there, what you make of it is up to you, but in the meantime we can enjoy a classic album from one of the greats.

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