Le Noise - Neil Young (LP, CD, download)
Well into his fifth decade of performing, with dozens of albums under his belt, a legendary and wilful shape-shifter…it’s good to know Neil Young still has the capacity to find something new and different.
The voice and the guitar playing are – as always – unmistakeably his, but the soundscape he and producer Daniel Lanois have created for Le Noise is not something we’ve heard before. Freed from the tethers of a rhythm section the guitar alternately floats and roars. There’s calm, detachment and reflection in his singing; frequent references back to the marriage that grounds him and to his Canadian roots. The buzz and loops and distortion in the sound add up to interference on a very long distance call, but with the message coming through loud and clear. It could have been downloaded through a Ouija board.
Lyrically, the songs are uneven. Generally plain, workaday language, sometimes veering into the trite (‘Angry World’). When he does wax poetic, you half wish he hadn’t – ‘Peaceful Valley Boulevard’ mixes clunky lines with stronger ones. But the sound and the conviction of the performances carry you through the weaker points in the writing without really noticing.
The lyrics are often brought to life with flashes of personal intensity. The first of the two strongest and clearly auto biographical songs is ‘Love and War’. As well as one of the record’s several references back to Toronto, it includes the following heartfelt lines:
The saddest thing in the whole wide world
Is to break the heart of your lover
I made a mistake and I did it again
And we struggled to recover
The second central song is ‘The Hitchhiker’: a curious personal history using the drugs he was taking at different stages of his life as its milestones, before retreading the chorus of ‘Like an Inca’ from his eighties album Trans. ‘The Hitchhiker’ was first written and performed live in the early 90s but not released on record until now. Somehow Neil has grown into it and all the elements come together into something extraordinary.
I had a taster for all this when we made the trip – or pilgrimage – out to Nashville at the beginning of June to see Neil at the hallowed Ryman Auditorium. His message was ‘I said solo, they said acoustic…’. After a relatively gentle, familiar – and glorious - start (‘My My, Hey Hey’, ‘Tell Me Why’, ‘Helpless’), he strapped on Old Black and blasted out a lot of the new songs, along with storming takes on classics like ‘Ohio’ and ‘Cortez the Killer’. It was a brave and compelling performance, but I think the new material gains a lot from the settings Daniel Lanois has given it on Le Noise – though I guess increasing familiarity may be affecting my judgment too. Must track down a recording of the Ryman performances to compare…
Anyway, if you like Neil Young for his gentler, reflective side, for his barnstorming electric rock, or for his readiness to try something weird and different – cum on feel Le Noise. He’s doing all those things remarkably well.