Even the most ardent supporters of Sleeps With Angels, the 1994 set from Neil Young and Crazy Horse, admit that it is a bleak album. It likely would have been even without the implication that the title cut was influenced by the suicide of Kurt Cobain.
The song has little to do specifically with him, but more about his generation. The rest of the album has no deep ties to the alt-rock cohort, other than to assure that where it seemed they were going, Young and company had already been. This was their way of saying, “We hoped it would have turned out different for you.”
Here’s another word to consider: “exhaustion.”
What does that mean, exactly? Think back to the 1990s. There was a sense in the air – mostly illusory – of a return to basics, of honesty, stripped-down, and legit. People saw in the music of the day a rejection of the big hair, big eye-makeup, big everything that the culture had wrought. Those bands that merged pop hooks with classic rock and punk’s DIY ethic and simplicity were striking a blow against the hair metal heroes passing out in their million dollar swimming pools, very much in the same way that punk’s first wave struck out against the coke-fueled hedonism of disco and the acid-tinged wandering of progressive rock. It seemed that, once again, the voices of youth and dissenters could be heard. Even if the “message” frequently was complete gobbledygook, as a lot of the era’s lyrics were (Pearl Jam’s “Yellow Ledbetter” is an example of a sound looking for a statement, failing, and going for it anyway), this was a declaration of being.
Young knew it well. One is hard pressed not to dig up his associations with Crosby, Stills and Nash (“Ohio”), Buffalo Springfield (“For What It’s Worth”), and hell, let’s throw in The Mynah Birds too while we’re at it. One of his earliest bands in Canada, The Mynah Birds paired Young with James Johnson, who left the United States when his number was pulled from U.S. Naval reserve to go into active duty in 1964. He assumed the stage name of James Matthews, later Ricky James Matthews.
In 1966, just as The Mynah Birds were making headway on the Motown label, Johnson/Matthews was taken into custody by U.S. military for being AWOL from duty, thus serving a major blow to the band. Young got a firsthand look at a sort of conscientious objector’s actions, as Matthews was thrown in the brig. Don’t feel too badly for him. Years later, he’d shuck off the “Matthews” and have his own success as “Super Freak” Rick James.
This is a long tangent, but it serves a point. Seemingly at each step, the optimism and defiance of the 1960s which fomented within youth culture with the willingness to fly the single-finger salute against overbearing authority was brought to heel by that same authority…sooner or later. That’s how Young got to “Ohio” in 1970, a visceral reaction to the Kent State University killing of four students and the wounding of nine others by Ohio National Guardsmen. The students were protesting against the bombing of Cambodia by United States military forces.
A few years later, Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry, a friend of Young’s, had both died of drug overdoses. Recorded in 1973, Tonight’s The Night seemed less like a requiem than a purge, a rough, riddled dark night of the soul…the soul being that spirit of the 1960s, when anything was once possible and we were once immortal.
Funny thing about immortality. Death always finds a way of screwing it up.
Cut back to the late 1980s and early 1990s. Neil Young, after years of being a pop provocateur and a sneering prankster to the subculture, in collaboration with David Briggs who allowed “Neil to be Neil,” got back to his roots in a sense. In 1989, he released Freedom and, based on the searing “Rockin’ In The Free World,” was rock royalty once more, and a captain for 3-chord guitar slingers yet to emerge. You can almost hear Young saying about the undercurrent starting to seep from the soil, “This time is gonna be different.”
Sleeps With Angels, then, is the exasperated sigh of recognition that, damn it, no it’s not. There are only a few moments of barely contained rage here, and people come away from the record very often with bewilderment. They think Young’s going to get pissed and set everything on fire, but he doesn’t. The heart of the record is not the title cut, but two very low-key tracks. The opening cut, “My Heart,” is near to an overheard confessional, with the protagonist countering his assertion of “It’s not too late, it’s not too late” with the admission “I don’t know what love can do.” It’s the equivalent of a conversation we’ve all had, either alone in a room, or alone in our heads, or in communion with God while trying to convince ourselves the thing we saw was not what we think it was. The life hasn’t ended, the heart wasn’t broken. We attempt to wish away hard truths, ugly truths…shared truths. Ultimately, we give in to the resignation.
The other track that defines the record is “Western Hero,” which mourns the death of heroes in general, from the hard-scrabble frontiersmen to the soldiers heading off to war in the ’40s with their pervasive dread of knowing they were probably going to die. Still, the cause was just, and so they faced the sacrifice. Jump to the modern day where heroism is determined solely by how fat one’s wallet is, and how shallow our sacrifice has become:
here comes the western hero
big money in his hand
Young’s position on war and those engaged in it had evolved and vacillated over time. Coming from the hippy ’60s where war was never the answer, up to “Let’s Roll” from 2001’s Are You Passionate?, a song that focused strictly upon the famous statement made by Todd Beamer, a passenger aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which was hijacked as part of the September 11 attacks in 2001. He and other passengers ambushed their attacker. In this, the idea lingered that even if war is evil, it is sometimes necessary, and so is sacrifice. Young’s position would shift back with 2006’s Living With War. Throughout all this, one can see his reticence with being strictly dogmatic about the dynamics of war and conflict begin that shift with Sleeps With Angels.
That was a quality that, over time, quite possibly drove his collaborators nuts. It wasn’t that Young was a flip-flopper. It is fair to say that you always knew where you stood with him generally, but he was prone to nuance. He could be persuaded that, just maybe, there is a valid reason for the counterargument. The old time hippies that came up with him, however, looked for intractable resolve that they weren’t always going to get, putting them philosophically at odds with Young.
In 1993 and 1994, I presume this too led to a sense of exhaustion. Young found common cause with a younger generation that was tired of being jerked around by systems developed by the Baby Boomers. Meanwhile, those same peers were at odds with him because he was “too much a Lefty” or “not a pure enough Lefty.” Sleeps With Angels seems to say, “You’re damned. Face it.”
The album’s “Driveby” isn’t demanding the guns be confiscated to stop the random killing. Rather, it comes away like a reporter’s notes. We are as Pandora, seeing the demons escape the open box and realizing that there’s no way of scooping them back inside and locking them up. Into this comes the naivete of youth that thinks it will live forever, until forever stops dead.
Well you feel invincible
It’s just a part of life
There’s a feud going on
and you don’t know
The one bit of levity and tension relief on the record comes from the sloppy punk rock of “Piece of Crap” which resides on the album’s back quarter. Essentially a screed against materialism, the listener knows Crazy Horse is taking it serious enough, but not too seriously. Young, Billy Talbot, Frank Sampedro, and Ralph Molina are plainly “taking a piss” out of it with a truly ragged garage rocker that details the impermanence of modern product, and how all it takes to stay in the consumerist loop is to promise more where that came from, even if the thing in question is garbage. Young has, throughout his career, written about humanity’s relationship with stuff, in its broadest sense. The stuff we own, the stuff that owns us, and the stuff that lacks virtue but will, regardless, long outlive us in a landfill dump.
Sleeps With Angels fared okay with its consumers, but was derided for its ever-present dour demeanor. It wasn’t the anthemic fireball that was 1990’s Ragged Glory, nor was it the elegant grace that was Harvest Moon, Young’s reunion with the Stray Gators, his backing band for the seminal Harvest album. Young was never quite the same after Sleeps With Angels either, but he did not stop. 1995’s Mirror Ball found him backed by Pearl Jam itself. In later years, there were songs about love, loss, and electric cars. To this day, he’s still rocking and raging, now backed mostly by the band Promise of the Real.
The approach is different, however. He still takes his position of Laureate of Doom seriously. He still tries to point to the sins of society, and he still encourages listeners to make a change, even if it makes a lot of people mad. But where he once shouted it out with the conviction that “I will be heard,” today he understands that he – only maybe – might be heard above the noise and endless self-gratification. Those who idolized him are now advanced to the halls of the idolized. (Listen to so-called classic rock radio lately? That’s where you’ll find Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots, and you too will wonder where all the time has gone.) A few of these musicians still get a glance of influence. Some of them are covered in cobwebs and have been shunted off from the world as “Dad Rock.” What do they say – you can’t have a reunion tour unless you break up first? So many more are dead, some from excess, but a shocking number by their own hand. Fame was not enough, or celebrity was too much, or simply the change that was promised never arrived. But Neil Young is still here.
Tonight’s The Night may be the album where he “went dark,” but Sleeps With Angels is the album where he realized the world went dark. He happened to be the reporter, exhausted, but continuing the coverage.