Sleeps With Angels

Sleeps With Angels

Rolling Stone Magazine Review, August 25, 1994

by David Fricke

Neil Young News

Subject: RS review of SWA

(scanned and proofed by Dreaming Man. 199 lines total.)

(picture of SWA cover) (big scary painting of neil)
* * * * * (5 stars)

Neil Young and Crazy Horse

APPARENTLY THEY missed each other by a matter of days. Early last April, Neil Young tried, through the usual managerial channels, to get in touch with Kurt Cobain. It was a gesture of concern and support following the Nirvana guitarist's near-fatal drug overdose in Rome the previous month. But Cobain never got the message. Instead, he left behind one of his own, a suicide note of graphic pain and rambling logic that pointedly quoted one of Young's most famous lyrics: It's better to burn out/Than to fade away.
Young - who's had plenty of experi- ence writing hymns for the dead and dying (Ohio, The Needle and the Damage Done, Tonight's the Night) - surely never meant those words to be taken so literally. But "Sleeps With Angels," written by Young in quick reply to Cobain's ghastly misinterpretation and the centerpiece of this extraordinary new
album, is not a song of either grief-driven anger or stinging self-rebuke. On its surface, it's startlingly matter-of-fact, a short, simple totem marking the loss with an almost paternal delicacy: She was a teen queen/She saw the dark side of life/She made things happen/But when he did it that night/She ran up phone bills/She moved around from town to town (too late/He sleeps with angels (too soon)."

The disquieting beauty of "Sleeps With Angels" is in the expert and lov- first names in American garage the actual sound of Cobain and impatient rumble of the Billy Talbot/ Ralph Molina rhythm section; the dusky, popish glimmer of the melody line; Young and Frank Sampedro's vigorously distorted guitars sawing crosscut scars into the hushed prayer-chant vocals. With a daring and sensitivity that go far beyond the sincerest form of flattery, Young has paid an affecting tribute to Cobain - his life, his grief, his accomplishments and everything he left unsaid and undone - by bringing it all, briefly, back to life in music.

Ironically, Sleeps With Angels is an album that might have given Cobain some comfort had he lived to hear it. Despite the funeral-pyre crackle of the title song, Sleeps With Angels is as charged with fighting spirit and romantic optimism as it's fraught with war- zone shell shock and deathbed fear. Sometimes, Young throws it all into the same song, as on "Prime of Life," a striking throwback to the doleful buzz pop of his earliest solo work ("The Loner, "I've Been Waiting for You"), that marks the spot where you start running out of time to find everything you ever dreamed of.

In the desultory piano crawl of "Driveby," Young considers with a har- rowing chill the random, even casual way that fate sights its victims in the cross hairs - "Well you feel invincible/It's just a part of life/ There's a feud going on, and you don't know." The chorus is brutalizingly direct, the words drive by repeated slowly four times in a kind of numbed singsong.

Yet for every jolt of grim realism like the doomsday freeze frame "Safeway Cart," with its eel-y glissando bass and muted air-raid-siren harmonica, there is also the battle-hardened confidence and healing faith of Train of Love," a firm pledge of fidelity in the old, reassuring Harvest-ballad mode ("To love and honor 'til death do us part/Repeat after me/This train is never going back"). In fact, the entire record rolls back and forth with the rhythm and rigor of a good, impassioned barroom argument. Vocal melodies and Iyric fragments from some songs are freely reprised to poetic effect in others. The two sister The Heart" and "A Dream That Can Last," actually feature the nostalgic plunking of an old saloon-style pianos. "Change Your Mind" and "Blue Eden," two magnum guitar-distortion reveries that add up to more than 20 minutes, comprise a raw, extended soliloquy on the love roller-coaster - "Destroying you/Embracing you/Protecting you/Confining you/Distracting you/Supporting you/Distorting you/Controlling you" - and the "magic touch" that just might help you make to the end of the line.

Sleeps With Angels is not the first album Young has made about the widening cracks in the American dream or what's left of it for the teenage refugees after the broken promises of the '60s and the worthless covenants a the Reagan-Bush era. But it is among his best, a dramatic wrestling of song and conscience that suggests - no, insists - that walking through fire doesn't necessarily mean you have to go up in flames. Coming from some other, sorry-ass member of the '60s or 70s rock aristocracy, that would sound like an empty joke. Here, driven home both by agitated guitar and the transportive ripple of those Wild West pianos, it's not only believable, it's inspiring.

Sleeps With Angels is also rich with the resonance of Young's own long uncompromised life in music. He's rarely strayed too far from his basic schematics of country-tinged folk pop and no-shit fuzz rock. But he steps into the echoes here with the same dignity and drive that he brings to the Nirvana sound in "Sleeps With Angels." The low, throaty menace of his guitar breaks in "Change Your Mind" strongly evokes the meditative crackle of those long dark solos he took back on Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. "Trans Am," a nuclear-landscape campfire story about a mythic set of hot wheels, is an electric "Last Trip to Tulsa" via Mad Max, a long, tall tale garnished with bassy twang and lashes of gulping wah-wah guitar.

And then there's "Piece of Crap," a raucous broadside against epidemic materialism and the curse of QVC ("Saw it on the tube/Bought it on phone/Now you're home alone/It's a piece of crap") that smokes like "This Note's for You" meets "Opera Star" at full Weld volume. it's a big, hilarious blob of rock & roll snot, and it doesn't seem to belong here - at first. But I've got 20 bucks that says by year's, it will be the encore cover version of choice by discriminating young punk bands everywhere, and besides, it says pretty much the same thing as the rest of the album: that just because there's a lot of shit in the world doesn't mean you have to put up with it. Kurt Cobain, sadly, found one way to deal with it. Neil Young, thankfully, is still working on his.

(end of article)

pg. 88, Rolling Stone, August 25, 1994

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