Neil Young: “Le Noise”

We all pretty much assume– those of us familiar with Neil Young’s curmudgeonly sense of humor, and Daniel Lanois’ oft-intrusive production techniques– that the singer titled his latest album Le Noise as a sort of cheeky reference to his collaborator and co-architect of this new material. So let two things be known from the get-go. First, this is perhaps the least intrusive production job Lanois has ever done, save, perhaps, for some of his more recent Eno assists with U2. And second, the album’s title isn’t just a snarky acknowledgment of Lanois’ tendency to over-embellish; it’s a level-headed diagnosis of this album’s spiritual state, a reflection of the kinds of truths embedded within it.

I suspect that only Lanois could fully explain the technical specifications of this recording– he claims to have re-invented the guitar for this project, just the kind of pompous statement that might make one wary of his involvement, at least until the music is actually heard— but the logistics are simple enough. Le Noise is on the one hand a solo recording, with Young performing these songs by himself, and on the other an act of collaboration, with Lanois amplifying and looping and generally mucking up the sound of these recordings to make the album feel bigger, fuller, meatier than a one-man show has any right to. Only, he isn’t really mucking things up this time: His touches are rather stunningly light and even masterful in how they serve the songs, adding necessary flourishes of harmony and texture in the absence of a regular studio band. Solo record though this may be, it isn’t Neil in country-folk mode: This thing roars like a mighty ocean of pure volume and sound.

It’s focused in a way that not a one of Young’s albums from the past ten years has been. In a career that has lately been a long series of digressions– a genre exercise in Are You Passionate?, an idling concept record in Fork in the Road, a banged-out, blog-speed political manifesto in Living with War, a tailored “return to form” in Prairie WindLe Noise moves the singer/songwriter’s art forward with purpose and momentum. Its lean running time– eight songs, under forty minutes– suggests an economy that comes from intentionality, inspiration, and craft. Within its small-ish frame, though, there lurks a fascinating conundrum, with the album’s spectral and ethereal sound distinguishing itself immediately from any other Neil Young album but its basic feel and spirit being familiar: For all of its initial weirdness, Lanois’ embellishment actually highlights all the things that make Neil Neil, the chunky guitar riffs of “Walk with Me” providing a handy explanation of why Young has been called the Godfather of Grunge, the chopped-and-looped effects of “Angry World” doing nothing to mask what is a quintessentially Neil Young, country-rock melody. The latter is by far the most out-there thing here, with the rest of the album striking a profound resemblance to Brian Eno’s work with Paul Simon on Surprise, albeit far less radical; in both cases, a veteran producer creates a soundscape that is utterly foreign, but within that new environment the singer simply does what he has always done, the resulting album feeling at once fresh and familiar.

All of this is by way of saying, of course, that there’s more to this particular beast than just le noise: Its collaborative nature is a truly sympathetic and understanding one, with Lanois exhibiting a knowledge of who Young the Artist is and where he could go– presenting both Young and the listener with a case of looking back as a way of moving forward. Indeed, for all its bluster, what stands out about the record is its eerie sense of calm, the idea that the racket of Young’s guitar and Lanois’ feedback represents a sort of external chaos that leaves the singer internally unshaken. Lanois enforces this effect with the same reverb-heavy overhand he brought to, say, Dylan’s Time out of Mind, providing a sort of holy-moment clarity to these songs that puts Young in a reflective place even as the waves of sound crash all around him.

There is a quite literal looking-back in “Hitchhiker,” a track Young has been fiddling with for some time now, which recounts his own carer trajectory by measuring his own self-destructive impulses, specifically his stints as a junkie: As a song about addiction and abuse, it’s surgically precise and oddly stoic in its appraisal, Young sounding matter-of-fact both about his regret and the gratitude he holds for his faithful family. This song and “Love and War” are the ones getting the most attention, probably because they’re so explicitly autobiographical, but of the two I prefer the latter, a sort of Spanish guitar ballad (one of two acoustic numbers) that makes some amusingly self-deprecating allusions to Young’s political outspokenness; it’s a more reflective and humble song than anything on Living with War, and yet it offers no apology: Young regards his moral indignation now with a calm sobriety, but stands by every word he said.

The songs offer thoughtfulness and complexity despite being cut very close to the bone; Young’s songwriting suffers when he fusses over it too much, and here everything is primitive and howling. These songs don’t feel rough-draftish or improvised so much as they do instinctive, outpourings of the real, inner Neil during a moment of surrender. “Walk with Me” is very much this way, a bizarrely pissed-off sounding love song that only becomes clear in its motivation at the very end; Young mentions the grief that has accompanied him over the past year as he has buried two close friends, and in that context his aggressive pleas for intimacy and companionship take on a yearning, spiritual quality. So, too, does the next song, “Sign of Love,” a celebration of life-long fidelity and grace that doesn’t sound like it comes easy, but comes through hardship and determination.

Young intermingles worlds here, the personal slant of those opening numbers suggesting a level of spiritual metaphor, and ultimately giving way to something broader in its focus by the time he comes to “Peaceful Valley Boulevard,” which winds its way through American history and surveys the same anger and confusion expressed elsewhere on the record, but still sounds like it comes from a place of clear vision. The set ends perfectly and purposefully with a song called “Rumblin'”– a song about something stirring, within the singer’s own heart and in the world around him. Something is stirring, alright. Le Noise is the work of an artist whose best impulses no longer lie dormant; it is, in its buzzing and echo-laden way, quintessential Neil, and it’s also quite unlike anything he’s done before.

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