Much like Uncle Bob, Neil Young is one of those rock icons who shows no signs of slowing down or letting up any time in the near future. Between his eight albums of new material in the past decade and the much lauded archives series (much akin to Dylan’s bootleg series), there’s plenty to keep the NY fan base satisfied with apparently no end in sight. And really, that’s a good, even a great thing.
From the mid 60s and throughout the 70s everything Young touched was pure gold (and sometimes went platinum) with the possible exception of CSNY (I’m not here to argue, folks, just to point out facts). From there on it’s been pretty hit and miss from his “experimental” stint in the 80s (call it what you want, there’s just some bad stuff in those years) to his resurgence in the 90s (Harvest Moon, ya’ll, can I get an amen?) and so on into the 21st century. Young definitely has a formula these days that he’s quite comfortable with, and though he has stepped away from this at times (Are You Passionate?...er, no thanks), the results usually range from fine to quite good. Things seem to work best when he’s working on a specific theme or rant to keep the material inspired and cohesive, and so albums like Greendale and Living with War are very nice outings (though the latter becomes more dated as the years pass) and the retro nod of Chrome Dreams II is likely to be hailed as a rock classic in another decade or so.
For this year’s Le Noise Young brought in veteran producer Daniel Lanois, best known for his stints with Brian Eno, U2 and for giving Dylan the shake up needed in the late 80s and mid 90s to reignite his career. This was a good move for Young because Le Noise is another batch of enjoyable but formulaic thinkers that cover a lot of familiar topics, from the spiritual and personal (Walk With Me), to love and war (Love and War), to the overall state of affairs (Angry World), to the plight and progress of the white man (Peaceful Valley Boulevard) and, of course, drugs (Hitchhiker). The latter is an especially moving number as it basically runs like an autobiographical what, when and why of everything he’s imbibed over the years from hash to coke yet ends, unlike many previous efforts within this theme, on a positive and thankful note.
Musically, with Lanois, it’s all about sonics. Le Noise (there’s a pun in that title) starts off with a big chord and Young, being the “godfather of grunge,” is no stranger to a big sound. The fact that this is an album featuring Young without a backing band or accompanists of any kind means that Lanois gets to fatten things up with wild distortion, bouncing echoes and layered loops of found sounds – sometimes Young’s voice, a guitar lick or a squeak of feedback. This is most effective in the aforementioned ode to drug intake, Hitchhiker, which bubbles and boils like a ship running a steady course through choppy waters, hitting deep lows and suggestive highs, creating a listening experience that’s almost visual and what one would imagine partaking in some of these drugs is like. Other songs enhanced by the Lanois touch include the outer space churn of Sign of Love, the low growl of Someone’s Gonna Rescue You and the underwater swell of album closer and Earth lament, Rumblin’. But Lanois also knows when a song needs to stand on its own, and he takes a step back on Love and War and Peaceful Valley Boulevard in particular to let Young tell his story the way he does best, with heart and guitar and voice.
Essentially Young is a survivor, he’s seen it all and participated in a lot of it, and Le Noise showcases this fact with an overall mood that’s contemplative but observant, retrospective but future minded, wise but not preachy. And while there’s a lot to be concerned about, and a lot to regret, there’s a bit of hope as well. Oftentimes Young seems to be holding back (where as in Living with War he did not – at all), which is possibly the reserve of an older, wiser man, but Lanois expresses the subdued angst and bravado by harnessing these emotions and allowing the music to release some of the bitterness and anxiety that the lyrics only suggest.
Le Noise is not a latter day masterpiece by Young’s standards, as he’s simply taking known thoughts and remarks out of his pocket and putting them to music, but it is an exceptional collection of both song and sound, a collaboration of two great artists, and the end result is interesting at the very least and thoughtfully inspiring in its stronger moments.