The most rockin' song on Neil Young's new Sleeps With Angels is "Piece of Crap." Over one of those stomping, gloriously unsubtle backing tracks the stolid Crazy Horse excels at grinding out, Young bellows an everyman's chant:
Saw it on the tube
Bought it on the phone
Now you're home alone
It's a piece of crap
Most Young fans can relate to the sentiments, particularly if you've shelled out cash for the product he's proffered over the last decade and a half, from early-80s stinkers like Everybody's Rockin' and Trans to mid-80s works like Landing on Water, Life, and Old Ways to some of his more recent offerings like last year's Harvest Moon and Unplugged sets. Young, rock 'n' roll's most beloved (and indulged) crank, is always het-up about something. Today it's a piece of crap; a few years ago it was corporate sponsorship ("This Note's for You"); a bit before that it was unions ("Union Man"). When you look back over his career, his celebrated moments of passion become devalued by the more, um, eccentric ones: moved by Kent State in 1970, he wrote "Ohio"; angered by Jimmy Carter's Panama Canal treaties, of all things, ten years later, he endorsed Reagan and constructed the unpleasantly right-wingy Hawks and Doves.
Animating what would otherwise be marginalization is his searching if somewhat cockeyed pursuit of a rock 'n' roll mythos. Obsessed with the onset of the rust he immortalized so long ago, he's set up a code of action designed to keep him from falling prey to its charms. For more than ten years he adhered to a rigid regimen of disconcertingly disparate and discursive stylizations, each of which were followed by a disavowal of their content and a move on to a new style. This produced some humorous juxtapositions (as fans intrigued by this country album or that electronic pastiche were greeted, say, with an accompanying Crazy Horse outing, or an R & B band) but little in the way of lasting music. His work hit a nadir in 1986 with the release of Landing on Water, an unimaginative piece of generic rock that stretched the patience of even artist-friendly Geffen records.
But beginning in 1989 with Freedom, a powerful record despite its Rust Never Sleeps-y approach, and then the bashy, overrated Ragged Glory, he's resurrected his critical standing impressively--so much so that Ragged Glory un-accountably won the Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics' poll, and even the pathetic Harvest Moon and the commercially grasping Unplugged set haven't dissuaded his partisans. Now he's consolidated this comeback with Sleeps With Angels, a wildly uneven but occa-sionally involving work that already got him a rare five-star review in Rolling Stone. It's less emotional but more venturesome than Freedom, less assaultive but more melodic than Ragged Glory. It's dis-organized, inconsistent, and more than once ridiculous, but not infrequently powerful and moving.
"Sleeps With Angels," the ballyhooed track inspired by the suicide of Kurt Cobain, is sort of interesting: played at high volume, it's a brain-cracker, and works on softer settings as well. But the trite title and empty, confusing lyrics ("She was a teen queen...She ran up phone bills") turn it into a mess. (Apparently worried that he'll be seen as trafficking in Cobain necrophilia, Young's refusing to promote the album or tour behind it.) The record's more powerful songs recall past triumphs and diversions. "Driveby" and "State of Life" are elliptical, moaning ballads that recall the stunned mind-states and mournful atmospherics of his classic mid-70s psyche-burners On the Beach and Tonight's the Night. "Trans Am" is an absurdist western along the lines of the adolescent favorite "Last Trip to Tulsa," on his first solo album. And most notably, there's the 14 minutes plus of "Change Your Mind," a self-indulgent epic that irritatingly enough contains some of the most lovely guitar and vocal work on the record. Partisans will acclaim its low-volume guitar-meistering a triumph on the scale of "Down by the River," but it's also a bit too reminiscent of "Will to Love," the notorious seven-minute saga from American Stars 'n Bars that saw Young imagining himself a spawning salmon.
The album is bracketed by a pair of pretentious pieces of chamber music, each flavored by a harpsichordlike piano sound. "My Heart" has lyrics like "Down in the valley the shepherd sees / His flock is close at hand"; the album's closer ("A Dream That Can Last," ugh) is a stomped-out waltz chorale that should have stayed in the studio. To me, Young's more irritating than illuminating; much of what he does, says, and sings is at the mercy of frayed brain synapses. Let
me go back to the song "Driveby," Young's take on urban violence. It's ghostly and tense, and works as music. Lyrically, though, it's patently the product of urban fear; in the end, it's the kind of dehumanization you'd expect from a cranky letter to the editor. Those years of hiccuping stylistic changes masked a deep dedication to the validity of his artistic decisions: he refused to pander or beg, and if you didn't like his records you were urged not to buy them. But that doesn't mean that bar talk, airy-fairy daydreams, and unprocessed emotions are the stuff of great rock 'n' roll. It's the difference between a piece of crap and a piece of art.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ed Zurbano.