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Forever Young

Last April, Neil Young got a terrible kind of fan letter -- Kurt Cobain's suicide note. Cobain wrote a weary message to Nirvana's followers, then signed off with Young's lyric from "My, My Hey, Hey": "It's better to burn out than to fade away." Who knows what Young, 48, thought when he heard that line? He wrote it 16 years ago and almost certainly didn't have a shotgun blast in mind.

The title track from Young's 35th album, "Sleeps With Angels," is a sad, knowing eulogy for Cobain. The guitar riff is pure Nirvana: distorted, solitary and melodic. And the lyrics are pure Kurt and Courtney: She wasn't perfect / She had some trips of her own / He wasn't worried / At least he wasn't alone . . . He sleeps with angels too soon. It's a hypnotic, oddly gentle rock song and one of the highlights of an uneven album.

"Angels" combines the ornery garage rock of 1990's "Ragged Glory" and the wistful folk of 1992's "Harvest Moon." A few songs seem to have been written on the run: "Change Your Mind," which is 15 minutes long, is just an excuse for Young to go on an astounding guitar bender. And a few, like the maudlin "My Heart," simply stink: Somewhere, somewhere / I've got to get somewhere / It's not too late, it's not too late / I've got to get somewhere. (Neil Young does "The Wizard of Oz." No thanks.) Fortunately, there's the courtly, acoustic "Western Hero" and its twin brother, "Train of Love." There's also the spookily beautiful "Driveby" and the wonderfully contentious "Piece of Crap," a rave-up in the spirit of Young's famous anti-endorsement screed "This Note's For You." Bands like Nirvana have been worshiping Young for years now, and he rarely makes a move without critics throwing palm fronds at his feet. Still, "Piece of Crap" suggests he's not taking himself too seriously: the holy man can still make an unholy racket.