Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Neil Young
Sleeps With Angels

Released 1994 on Reprise
Reviewed by markybov, 16/06/2000ce

It's commonly accepted fact that with the opening of the nineties came a new creative rebirth for Neil. After a decade of legal wrangling and a chain of seemingly willfull random and shallow releases, 1990's triumphant "Ragged Glory", and the accompanying live set, "Weld", saw him plugging in the guitars again with the faithful Crazy Horse in tow and reaching for the knob that goes all the way up to eleven. As Nirvanamania swept the world and Slash-stylee guitar-widdling and poodle hairdos were forgotton, Neil Young stepped up to receive his crown as the Godfather of Grunge.
And then, just to prove that all aspects of his former glory had returned, he casually threw out the whiskery and radio-friendly "Harvest Moon" as the official follow-up to the massive-selling "Harvest" from 1972.

Much was expected of his return to the studio with Crazy Horse, but what resulted was a record so deep and scary that few of his new-found fanbase were willing to get near the edge, let alone dive into it.
In a bizarre moment of clarity, Q magazine awarded it the full 5-stars, only to receive a torrent of angry complaints like:
"If Neil Young pissed in a bucket, would you give that 5-stars too?"

Such comments miss the point. Neil has always done just what everyone least expects him to do, and time has shown the darkest moments of his career to invariably be among the finest. That's Neil.
Sleeps With Angels is a lengthy, dark and gruesome emotional work-out that trudges with eyes doggedly fixed to the ground through modern disposable America, passing the wreckage of the grunge scene and the fresh ashes of Cobain, whose famous quoting of "Better to burn out than to fade away" in his suicide note had prompted Young to vow never again to sing those words.
Where Ragged Glory waved the flag of Rock n' Roll from the top of the highest amp-stack, here was the supposed Godfather of Grunge splitting open it's very veins and showing you the blackened heart within.

The tiny opener "My Heart" initially terrifies the listener with twee-sounding tack-piano and falsetto lyrics about flocks of sheep and falling stars, but when Young slows right down almost to a stop and whispers in your ear "Somewhere....someone has a dream come true..." you suddenly know that he's being deadly serious.

And then comes "Prime of Life" and Crazy Horse kick in, but it's a far cry from the bollock-crunching you normally expect. Muted guitars form a shadowy backdrop to a lone and barely-in-tune penny whistle melody swarthed in reverb while Young tentatively asks "Are you feeling alright? Not feeling too bad myself..."
Then things slow right down again with the stark and beautiful "Driveby", before hitting the short yet dismayingly random and off-key title track. Ralph Molina's drums clatter and lurch about while Young and Frank Sampedro battle it out with ridiculously distorted juggernaut-sized guitars against a barely-audible refrain of "too late...too soon....".
The listener is relieved when it all goes quiet once more for "Western Hero" where Young sings of a nameless and forgotton hero from the frontier towns of America to the beaches of Normandy.

Then comes "Change Your Mind" which is not simply a great Neil Young song, it's one of the REAL all-time classics, and would justify the worth of the album even if all the other songs on it were utter crap. Standing as the centrepiece of the album, it rolls on for nearly 15 minutes of pure loveliness, and is one of the finest and most charged performaces Crazy Horse have ever laid down. Young sings of "the one whose magic touch can change your mind", and although by the end of the song the same magic touch is "confining you" and "distorting you", you are left wanting to do nothing more than run immediately to that person and never let go again.
So shocking a song is it that the existance of the next track, the lanky and loose 6 minute blues-plod of "Blue Eden", is explained away as nothing but a much-needed comedown, with Young atonally repeating many of the lyrics from the previous track.

Then it's into the creepy and uneasy "Safeway Cart", where screaming guitars echo around the background to a persistant rim-shot from Ralph Molina and a repeated downward-sliding bass note from Billy Talbot while Young murmers "Baby looks so bad with her tv eyes...".
Next comes Train of Love, a simply beautiful shrug-of-the-shoulders love song which shares it's melody and backing track with "Western Hero" from the first half of the album, followed by "Trans Am" - a slow and whispered look at America through the windows of an old Trans Am which eventually breaks down on Route 66.
Two songs to go, and the Horse finally lets it's hair down for a totally throw-away finale in the shape of "Piece of Crap" where Young spits vitriol over modern technology and consumerism to a hilarious four-on-the-floor rock-out.
When the final track, "A Dream That Can Last" whisks us back to the haunting tack-piano of the opener, you finally realise that the album you've just listened to is almost perfectly symmetrical. In fact, the more you listen to it, the more you realise how many cross-references and repeated snippets of lyics there are in the whole thing.

When asked about the album a year later, Young replied "I've never really spoken about why I made that album. I don't want to start now."
Perhaps Sleeps With Angels will remain the Neil Young album that nobody really talks about, but for those that put in the effort and are prepared to go to the dark places, there lies the reward of one of the most artistically satisfying records he's made.

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