Review Summary: Unlike much of Young's recent output, Le Noise actually adds something new to the artist’s catalogue.
Two thoughts crossed my mind as I read the title of Neil Young’s new album. Initially, I recalled Young’s stunning set at Glastonbury 2009, his closing cover of ‘A Day in the Life’ ending in a hailstorm of feedback, the sight of a man that has lost none of his intensity on stage. My second thought was a fear that Young’s latest effort would be an indulgent attempt at Noise music – his Metal Machine Music – a move that would have come off as desperately naïve considering the vastness and complexity of today’s Noise underground. However, Le Noise is neither a testament to the ferocity of Young’s guitar playing nor a wild experiment. Instead, the title is a pun on its producer’s name, Daniel Lanois, whose collaboration provides the twist suggested. Lanois washes six of the album’s eight tracks in a dense fog of feedback, pedal effects, distortion, voice loops and echo. There’s no percussion – just Young and his guitar – creating a brooding atmosphere that provides a surprising intimacy for such a loud record.
There’s not doubt that Lanois’ production provides an incredible dimension of sonic texture to Young’s driving guitar, but is there any substance underneath the noise? Some of the tracks are a little too straightforward - opener “Walk with Me” essentially repeats the title over a grinding riff – and although this allows the singer to get to the heart of his concerns, some may find the lack of variation tedious. While the electric tracks are good, it’s on the two acoustic tracks that Neil’s voice and lyrics truly come to life. ‘Peaceful Valley Boulevard’ is a kind of Westering eco ballad, shifting subject from American expansion to climate change. “Before the west was won there was a cost”, Young sings, before asking “who’ll be the one to lead this world / and protect God’s creations?” Considering this is the most overtly political song on the record, and arguably the angriest, cutting the electric provides an incredibly powerful contrast.
If anger is one theme, the other is self-reflection. ‘Love and War’ finds Young contemplating on his song-writing career: “I said a lot of things that I can’t take back / but I don’t really know if I want to / There’ve been songs about love, I sang songs about war / since the backstreets of Toronto”. It’s fascinating to hear a songwriter of Young’s stature so open about his craft, especially when he concludes that “I don’t really know what I’m saying.” The reflection continues on the album highlight ‘Hitchhiker’, a song that’s been around since the 70s. The lyrics have always been autobiographical, but released so late into Young’s career they take on a new context, especially when dealing with his drug addiction: “you didn’t see me in Toronto / when I first tried out some hash / smoked through a pen and I’d do it again / but I didn’t have the cash.” Most affecting though are the ominous closing lines, a reminder that underneath Young’s angry bravado is an aging man: “I tried to leave my past behind / but its catching up with me.”
Le Noise is an album of contrasts, power and delicacy, anger and acceptance. After a string of disappointing efforts, this album is a strong reminder that Young still has somthing to say; unlike much of his recent output, Le Noise actually adds something new to the artist’s catalogue.
Written for http://nightbus.tumblr.com