Neil Young: Sleeps With Angels (1994)

I've been knee-deep in my Neil Young collection for the past week or two (that's about 45 studio albums, never mind countless live albums and compilations), working on a Neil Young Top 10 for an upcoming Toppermost contribution. (I ended up with one Top 10 for 1969-1981, and a second for 1982-2000, leaving the post-2000 work for a more intrepid soul... feel free to place your wagers on what made the cut.)

And while revisiting Neil's 1980s output can be a challenge (despite the playfully durable electronica-themed Trans and a few redemptive moments on stray albums), it was also a helpful reminder that he made quite the artistic rebound in the 1990s -- maybe nothing quite up there with his 60s-70s triumphs, but still some truly terrific music. I think my favorite is Sleeps With Angels, a largely plugged-in album with Crazy Horse after the acoustic (and frequently beautiful) Harvest Moon

It's for the most part a dark and somber record, released in the wake of Kurt Cobain's suicide. And like 1975's Tonight's the Night, which was deeply influenced by the drug overdoses of a number of Young's comrades, the album makes a few direct references to such passings, but for the most part conveys sadness and loss through tone and mood. Yet while Tonight was stark and bare, Angels, supported by a mostly low-key Crazy Horse, is a dense, sonically rich record, keeping it captivating even where lyrically intense.

The centerpiece of the album is the raging, sprawling "Change Your Mind," a classic "Cortez the Killer"/"Like a Hurricane"-styled Crazy Horse jam, abetted immensely by one of Neil's most infectious choruses from the post-70s era. The much more concise title track is haunting, with a menacing electric atmosphere; while ballads like "Western Hero" are lovely, capturing Neil before his later work would drag similar sentiments into a certain sameness.

The one upbeat moment is the silly, boisterous "Piece of Crap," out of place on the collection but still a welcome respite, with Neil & the Horse mining the same dorky yet fun territory as songs like "Opera Star" and "Prisoners of Rock & Roll."

Angels opened up a brief electric trilogy (followed by the Pearl Jam-backed Mirror Ball and another somewhat downbeat Crazy Horse rocker Broken Arrow, which, bookended by the acoustic Harvest Moon and, in 2000, Silver & Gold, made for Young's most solidly consistent run since the early 70s.

Here's the video for the title track:
Here's a live "Change Your Mind":
...and "Piece of Crap":