****; NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE, "Sleeps With Angels" ( Reprise )
Neil Young is only a year away from joining Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in rock's 50-and-over club, yet there is little public questioning of his relevance in a post-Nirvana rock world governed creatively by the twentysomething alternative crowd.
Truly rock's man for all ages, Young is as much a show stopper jamming with contemporary heroes Pearl Jam at the MTV Video Music Awards as on stage with rock's elder statesmen at a Bob Dylan tribute concert at Madison Square Garden.
Young--whose best music for a quarter century has combined a caressing, country-folk soulfulness with a ragged hard-rock fury--seemed to be going in circles artistically during most of the '80s. But he has rebounded with four remarkably evocative studio albums in a row--starting with 1989's "Freedom."
This hasn't been a case of simply reviving classic elements of an artist's style--as in the case of the Rolling Stones' pleasing but none-too-revealing "Voodoo Lounge" album. Young's best recent tracks don't just remind us of his best work from the '70s--they measure up to it.
Young's message in "Sleeps With Angels" again is ageless--music about social concerns and private thoughts that, in key moments, is as soul-baring as anything he has done since 1975's "Tonight's the Night," perhaps his bravest and most enduring collection.
At varying points, he speaks with the maturity of someone who has fought back from disillusionment and despair. Elsewhere, he acknowledges the heartache and confusion of someone whose youthful innocence has been so shattered that he wonders if he'll ever recover his idealism and dreams.
The album's title song will likely get the most initial attention because it was written after Kurt Cobain's suicide last spring. Where some veteran rockers after Cobain's death said they couldn't understand a performer being so unsettled by fame that he would kill himself, Young sensed the depth of Cobain's struggle and was even trying to contact the Nirvana leader before the suicide.
So Young was horrified to see his own lyrics--"It's better to burn out than to fade away"--quoted in Cobain's suicide note.
Young had repeatedly disputed over the years interpretations linking that 1979 song to a "live fast, love hard, die young" philosophy, much less a death wish. The idea, he stressed, is to not hold back in your art.
The song "Sleeps With Angels" is a disarming tale of bittersweet loss that is bathed in a guitar-dominated sonic intensity that links it, almost sweetly, to some of Nirvana's own searing textures.
In the rest of the album, most of which was written before Cobain's death, Young and the three musicians in Crazy Horse struggle with other forms of disillusionment, from social decay to private infidelities.
Through each step, they play with an almost spiritual purity, casting a wide array of sonic shadings that seem at every turn in perfect step with the emotions--all the way from the psychedelic haze of the 14-minute "Change Your Mind" to the bratty rowdiness of "Piece of Crap."
But the heart of the album rests in its most tender moments, notably "Driveby," a reflection on the random killing of a young girl, and the closing "A Dream That Can Last," a song of renewed optimism and hope.
Although the latter tune evokes the image of the dead young girl, the song, with its unbending optimism, is an expression of comfort and hope.
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.
The beauty of this album is that you can imagine it providing comfort to someone as troubled as Cobain on one of those nights when life itself seems as dark as a moonless sky. The sadness that radiates through "Sleeps With Angels" is that Cobain, whose own music was such a comfort to his own generation, never got to hear it.
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