So, sometime in late 1996 or early ’97, I penned this capsule review of Sleeps With Angels for the original Old Grey Cat website:
I compacted a lot into a little, obviously, but overall I think it captures the esprit of the 12-track set, which was released on August 6th, 1994. The only change I’d make now: swap “which” for “that,” as “…several tragedies which touched the lives…” sounds awkward. There’s far more to the album than those 95 words (100 if you count the title, year and grade), of course. The result is this lengthy piece, which finds me delving into the album in the order that it was recorded… (according to the Neil Young Archives, at least).
In late 1993, following a summer tour with Booker T. and the MGs, Neil saddled up the Horse at the L.A. stables known as the Complex and took ‘em for a ride, while longtime traveler David Briggs manned the boards. The first song recorded was “Western Hero” on Nov. 8, 1993, and, in some ways, it set the stage for what followed: primarily low-key songs at odds with Crazy Horse’s “crank it up” ethos. It may not be a loud album, but it speaks volumes.
Overtop a plaintive melody, Neil explores the evolution of “hero,” from the gunslingers of yore to the brave souls who died at Normandy to the present: “Through the years he’s changed somehow/He’s different now/He’s different now,” he sings, a mournful tone in his voice. What he means by “different” is left to the listener to decide, though the line “standing there, big money in his hand” offers a clue.
The second song for the album was recorded a month later, on December 6th, when the 14-minute opus that is “Change Your Mind” was laid down. The song length conjures the guitar workouts of yore, as I noted in my long-ago review, while the subject is anything but. It’s not a celebration of “the glory of love,” to borrow a line from Lou Reed, but a meditation on how love helps one deal with a world beyond our control. “When you’re confused/and the world has got you down/when you feel used/and you just can’t play the clown/protecting you from this/must be the one you love…”
“A Piece of Crap” was recorded the same day, no doubt inspired by something Neil had bought in the preceding month; it’s a fun throwaway. To my mind, “Driveby,” recorded on the 7th, is the raison d’être for the album. Due to the title track, it’s often assumed that the album’s downbeat mood was inspired by the tragic death of Kurt Cobain on April 5th, 1994, yet all but “Sleeps With Angels” was recorded prior to his passing. Other deaths were weighing on Neil at the time, most significantly – I think – the daughter of a good friend who died in a drive-by shooting. “It’s a random kind of thing/came upon a delicate flower/I can’t believe a machine gun sings…”
“Blue Eden,” a haunting jam laid down the same day, continues the mood, with the lyrics borrowed from “Change Your Mind,” “Driveby” and the as-yet-recorded “Train of Love.” “You feel invincible, it’s just a part of life” sums up life for the young, in many respects. And speaking of “Train of Love,” also recorded on the 7th: It’s the same melody as “Western Hero,” but with lyrics a little less circumspect though not necessarily direct, as the stanza reference love in its many hues: “I know in time we’ll meet again/We come and go that way, my friend/It’s a part of me and part of you/I’ll always be a part of you…”
A week later, Neil and Crazy Horse recorded what would become the album’s closing song, the delicate “A Dream That Can Last.” Neil plays tack piano and sings about a dream that featured his friend’s daughter: “I saw a young girl who didn’t die/I saw a glimmer from in her eye/I saw the distance, I saw the past/And I know I won’t awaken/It’s a dream that can last…”
A two-month break commenced. When the band came together again, on Feb. 8th, the depression seemed to lift a bit. “Prime of Life,” the first track tackled, finds Neil in a reflective mood – not sad, not happy, but somewhere in-between – and addressing a friend who could well be us: “Are you feelin’ all right?/Not feelin’ too bad myself…”
“Trans Am,” recorded the same day, echoes Tonight’s the Night’s “Albuquerque” to an extent, though a tad less woozy, while spinning a story that intermingles the titular sports car with a pastiche of western history – ghosts on the road, in a way. “My Heart,” the eventual album opener, was recorded the next day. It’s a perfect entry into the book-long odyssey: “When dreams come crashing down like trees/I don’t know what love can do.” Yet, even in darkness, hope exists: “Somewhere, someone has a dream come true.” “Safeway Cart,” the next song to be recorded, came about after another month-plus break, on March 24th. It conjures “Driveby” to an extent, with Neil channeling the hopelessness that marks the “ghetto dawn.”
The last song recorded for the album, the title track, was laid down on April 25th, just 20 days after Cobain’s death. Most folks reading this should know the backstory, but for those few who don’t: In his suicide note, Cobain quoted from Neil’s lyrics: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” The song itself is largely journalistic, with an emphasis on (and symphony for) Courtney Love: “She wasn’t perfect/She had some trips of her own/He wasn’t worried/At least he wasn’t alone…”
An album’s sequencing is an important factor – it’s somewhat akin to putting together a puzzle without a picture to work from. If the songs had been laid out in the order they were recorded, well, it would have been a great album. But by sequencing it the way that they did, Neil and Briggs upped it to a greater realm. I should add, I suppose, that Neil did little to promote the album after its release – no interviews or tours. Instead, he let the music speak for itself. One result, I think, is that it’s become somewhat overlooked in the pantheon that is his oeuvre. To those who’ve never heard it, I say play it today; and for the initiated, give it another listen. It’s a powerful piece. As I said way back when, it ranks with his best ever.
The track list: