Sleeps With Angels

I’d like to write up a little review and background to this marvellous album, for a couple of reasons: It was the first Neil Young album that I bought back when I was 16, and it’s still getting better each time I listen to it. It changed how I listened to music and it started my Neil Young addiction ;-). Kurt Cobain’s death was 13 years ago some days ago on april, 8th. And I heard, Mario bought this CD, so I better give him some hints on how great it is …

Sleeps With Angels

It all began back in 1972. Neil Young was just recording the Harvest album, which should become his most successful album in his career. It’s relatively light-weighted (some would argue, too light-weighted) folk/country-ish thing. You most likely know ‘Heart Of Gold’ from that album. Danny Whitten, his collegue and close friend from his backing band Crazy Horse dropped by to record some bits. But his heroine addiction made it impossible for him to do anything useful (he needed help even to get his headphones on the head), so Neil Young gave him some dollars and sent him home. A couple of days later, Danny was found death, heroine overdose. It was around this time when another friend and roadie Bruce Berry was also found death (I don’t know if it’s suicide or overdose, but something like this). All this triggered a bad guilt complex, a very dark period and the so called ditch trilogy of great albums.

Time-jump to 1979. Neil Young is celebrating Punk and Rock’n’Roll with Crazy Horse on the Rust Never Sleeps tournee and albums. He is writing ‘Hey Hey My My’, an anthem on Rock’n’Roll in general and the Sex Pistols and Johnny Rotten in specific. This song had the line ‘It’s better to burn out than to fade away’ which was dismissed by John Lennon (who unfortunately died one year later) as rubbish. My guess is that he didn’t mean that literally, but was intendet to capture the spirit of rock’n’roll in general.

Another time jump to 1994. Kurt Cobain, one of the leading musicians of the so-called ‘grunge’ movement committed suicide. (On a side not, many found that grunge was, what Neil Young was doing anyway since 1969, and so dubbed him the ‘Godfather of Grunge‘). In his suicide letter, Kurt was citing Neil Young with ‘It’s better to burn out, then to fade away’. Again, Neil was confronted with the death of a musician, not a close friend though, but surely connecting him to his own history. Again, his guilt complex was nagging on him. And again, the outcome was a marvellous album.

Sleeps With Angels is a special piece in Young’s back catalog. The music is somewhat atypical for Crazy Horse. While it certainly has some rocking pieces (Change Your Mind, Piece Of Crap), there are also some very quiet tunes (My Heart, A Dream That Can Last). But looking at single songs really doesn’t make sense to cover the art of that album. There is much more structure here, than only a bunch of single songs.

The centerpiece that holds everything together is Blue Eden. It’s a very dark and strong song and is in itself a collage of other songs of that album, both lyrically as well as musically. From that song, I like to view the album symmetrically. Safeway Cart and Change Your Mind are next to Blue Eden, and are relatively typical Crazy Horse songs. Long guitar intermezzo, interesting layers of distortion and disorientation. These two are enclosed by ‘Western Hero’ and ‘Train Of Love’, which share the same melody. Western Hero is a strange beast and I don’t really know yet (after 13 years) what to make out of it. It seems to capture the ‘Generation X’ thing quite well, whatever this means. Train Of Love, just as most other songs on this album, pokes on how life is going. Then there is the title song ‘Sleeps With Angels’, a rude slow grumbling rocker on one chord only. This seems to be directly connected to Kurt Cobains death. The album is opened and closed by two similar lullaby-alike songs. But there’s not only the symmetry in the album’s songs to be found. The songs are all interwoven with each other, some songs holding lyric fragments from others, and spinning on their theme. Other songs pick up bits musically and develop them further. It’s a little like a modern symphony.

There are many details to discover in this album, not only musically (Neil playing flute on Prime Of Life, distorted harmonicas here and there, and much more), but also in the packaging. For example, the back of the booklet has a picture that on first sight looks like something destroyed/distorted. If you look at it from far away, you can recognize Neil’s head with sunglasses. The label of the CD has the typical ‘reprise ship’, but in black-and-white instead of the usual orange. This has a connection to his 1975 album ‘Tonight’s the Night‘, the centerpiece of the ditch trilogy, where he also did this little gimmick. There’s many more bits like this. My suggestions for more reading material: Kurt and Neil, the Sleeps with Angels album and Tonight’s the Night vs Sleeps With Angels.


About Roman Kennke
JVM Hacker, Principal Software Engineer at Red Hat's OpenJDK team, Shenandoah GC project lead, Java Champion

One Response to Sleeps With Angels

  1. Mario says:

    This album will rapidly become one of my favourites, not only because it *is* a beautiful piece of art, but because it is capable of giving me back all the feelings and, yes, the tragedy, of one of the most important and intense period of my life.

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