In 1978, the first punk rock movement reached an epiphany of sorts when the Sex Pistols imploded after a performance at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Given the havoc the band had wreaked in Britain during the previous 14 months, many in the music industry hoped the Pistols would make an equally big noise in this country; the group's high-profile disintegration was unexpected.
It was also wonderfully appropriate. Rather than follow the usual route and see his notoriety turn into celebrity and, eventually, respectability, Johnny Rotten lunged for the exit, pausing only long enough to sneer, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"
That was precisely the kind of farewell Neil Young had in mind when he wrote "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)" a few months later. "The king is gone but he's not forgotten," sang Young in tribute, "This is the story of a Johnny Rotten."
Coming from one of the most tempestuous stars of the previous generation, Young's endorsement of Rotten carried enormous weight in the rock community. But the song's most famous couplet wasn't about the singer so much as his band, condensing the Sex Pistols' saga into a brutally eloquent epitaph:
It's better to burn out
Than to fade away.
A few months ago, those lines took on a different resonance when Nirvana's Kurt Cobain quoted them toward the end of his suicide note. Cobain's death was an epiphany of a different sort, one that not only left the second punk movement in a state of emotional disarray, but turned the dark bravado of Young's lyric into the stuff of tragedy.
It's no wonder, then, that the incident casts a shadow across Young's new album, "Sleeps with Angels" (Reprise 45749, arriving in stores Tuesday). It isn't just that the title song addresses Cobain's suicide in much the same way that "My My, Hey Hey" deals with the end of the Sex Pistols; it's as if the whole album is haunted by the implications of that act.
What Young wrestles with here are the basic issues of heroism and rebellion -- of when to fight the good fight, and when to admit that the struggle is useless -- and that gives the album a very different feel from most of the singer's work. Unlike "Rust Never Sleeps" (the album that gave us "My My, Hey Hey"), there's no easy division between the pastoral beauty of Young's folkie impulses and the over-amped crunch of his hard rock side; here, everything is mixed together, as plaintive melodies float prettily over sludge-like guitars, and nasty, distortion-muddied counter-melodies undercut otherwise quiet arrangements.
It's almost as if Young, not knowing what to think this time around, is going by feel. That would explain the mixed emotions and curiously unresolved conclusion of "Change Your Mind," the album's magnum opus. At first, the song seems to be a call for reconciliation and redemption, as Young sings of confusion and a loss of will before exulting in "the one whose magic touch can change your mind."
But as the near 15-minute track rambles on, Young's dilemma slowly becomes audible. As much as he'd like to believe that resolution is as easy as the shift from minor to major in his verse and chorus, he can't. Instead, the song's uplifting "change your mind" refrain becomes almost taunting, offering not comfort and support but confinement and control.
Where this struggle plays out most vividly, though, is during the lengthy instrumental sections. At least half of "Change Your Mind" is given over to guitar solos. But this is no mere indulgence, for Young's brooding improvisations are what bring the song's inner workings to light. We can almost hear the turmoil in his playing as he pokes and prods at each phrase, turning each bit of melody upside down and inside out.
It's a masterful touch, intensely dramatic despite its low-key dynamics, but it's hardly the only such moment on the album. A certain amount of that song's unease bleeds over into the slow, spacey sprawl of "Blue Eden," a moody reflection on fate and fatalism that's equal parts slow blues and feedback-filled grunge (imagine Lou Reed rewriting "Hunger Strike" and you'll have an idea). Even "Western Hero," with its gentle, elegiac melody and seemingly straightforward lyric, is left slightly off-center by the dark, distortion-drenched guitar that growls through its bridge.
But then, nothing on "Sleeps with Angels" is meant to be easy or obvious. Even the album's prettiest songs are hobbled by a sense of disquiet -- like "Prime of Life," which flanks its sweetly harmonized "When I first saw your face/It took my breath away" bridge with menacing guitar and electronic clangor, or "A Dream That Can Last," which might pass for an old-time spiritual were it not for the death-march drum thumping ominously beneath its tinkling dance-hall piano.
Rather than undercut the songs, though, the aural anxiety Young sprinkles through the album only intensifies the music, as if the noise and despair made the moments of melody and hope that much sweeter. Maybe that's why the title tune, for all its verbal misgivings (like the "Too late/Too soon" counterpoint in the chorus) and note-grinding guitar grunge, seems more like an elegy than a lament. It's as if Young comes not to bury Cobain, but to show how it could have been had the younger musician recognized that there is another option beyond the two suggested in "My My, Hey Hey."
It may be better to burn out than to fade away, but it's better still to burn brightly and endure. Neil Young certainly does, and that's why "Sleeps with Angels" is easily one of the most resonant and powerful recordings of the year.
To hear excerpts of the new album by Neil Young and Crazy Horse, "Sleeps With Angels," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6135 after you hear the greeting.