Neil Young - Le Noise (2010)
Reading the bits of information about Le Noise that were leaked out by its two chief architects, my expectations were leaning heavily towards this new Daniel Lanois produced Neil Young recording being the most welcome addition to the latter artist's body of work in over a decade. And coming from a rabid Neil Young devotee who couldn't help but listen to Fork In The Road way more than most 2009 releases simply due to the fact that it "wasn't completely terrible, or is at least terrible in a kind of funny and entertaining way," the album that I was expecting would leave me with no choice but to view it as some kind of mind blowingly incredible next level musical achievement. Such is the nature of this writer's Neil fandom.
There were two things that piqued my interest. One was the prospect of a solo album. Not in the sense of "without Crazy Horse" like what Neil's unaccompanied name on a record sleeve implies, but the kind of solo album that he's somehow never gotten around to making until over 40 years into his career despite possessing one of the most powerful and iconic "one man and a guitar (or piano and sometimes harmonica)" presences in all of rock music. Anyone who has heard him singing haunted room filling renditions of "Old Man" and "A Man Needs A Maid" on Live At Massey Hall knows that extra musicians aren't required for him to command the listener with his songs. And anyone who has heard "Will To Love" knows that Neil Young up late at night laying down bizarre multitrack recording experiments is too intriguing and rewarding of a concept to have not been explored further.
And then of course there's Daniel Lanois, a man who helped Simply Saucer get their legendary music onto tape, contributed instrumental and engineering duties to some top notch early Raffi LPs, collaborated with Brian Eno, and made sure that latter day efforts by Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris sounded like nothing else in those artists' careers. "There's no band, but I got in there with my sonics," Lanois stated about Le Noise, and considering that Dylan's Time Out of Mind and Harris's Wrecking Ball were colored by dark reverb heavy arrangements that didn't try to recapture those artists' pasts nor squeeze them into any current mainstream radio climate, Lanois getting in there with his sonics is pretty much an inherently positive treatment for 21st century Neil Young music to receive. At this point, the last thing anyone needs from Neil is rush recorded novelty rockers or bland by-numbers acoustic throwaways like "Shining Light."
Lanois's efforts on Le Noise, besides providing the source of a most delightful pun in the title (goodness, that took me far too long to notice), are largely concentrated upon helping Neil get back in touch with elements of his artistic identity that he never really lost in the first place. Onstage and with Old Black in hand, he's still able to unleash some of the most impassioned musical fury known to man, and when you consider how the past few years of live Neil have been defined by 20 minute jams on "No Hidden Path" and brutally raw takes on "A Day In The Life," he seems as committed as ever to bringing the fire. When it comes to songwriting, however, much of his recent material has been marred by uninspired melodies and awkward lyrics that don't even come close to touching something like "Razor Love," the highlight of 2000's mostly innocuous Silver & Gold and the last time Neil released a song that was as sublime as any of his greatest works.
Neil has spent so much of the past decade venturing too deep into the subdued farming enthusiast side of himself (the "old man" who was heard on Prairie Wind and in the Heart of Gold documentary and who keeps misguidedly letting his loving wife handle backing vocals for some reason) and into his peculiar concept album fixations inspired by fictional towns, politics, and his car, when not so long ago he was dragging Crazy Horse through pulverizing 14 minute long renditions of "Danger Bird," scoring the soundtrack to Dead Man, and taking career advice from Thurston Moore. Of course it's silly to expect him to be the Keiji Haino of classic rock, but there is some truth in that analogy. One of the most significant recurring aspects of Neil's career for me is how his most transcendent works have been the ones that sound like he's holding nothing back and letting the music pour out of him in an unforced manner. It's why his "Ditch Trilogy" records possess such a different character from his up and coming folky singer/songwriter LPs like Harvest and After The Gold Rush. It's why when I want to be floored by Neil Young, I'm more likely to throw on the Weld version of "Cortez The Killer" or side two of On The Beach or "Interstate" or "Soldier" or fucking "Powderfinger." It's why I practically feel guilty for enjoying the non "Natural Beauty" Harvest Moon tracks or anything before the last two tracks on Silver & Gold as much as I do. If neutered easy listening baby boomer jams are what you're going to Neil Young for, you might as well go all the way and stick exclusively to Crosby, Stills & Nash.
So imagine the sense of relief that I felt when the big bellowing opening chords of "Walk With Me" began rattling my speakers. Within seconds Neil is howling, "I FEEL YOUR LOVE!!!! I FEEL YOUR STROOONNNNGGGG LOOOOOVVVEEEE!!!!" and it's clear that this could very well be the most joyously life affirming piece of Neil Young music since the barnstorming rockers of Ragged Glory twenty years ago. But he certainly doesn't stop there. Around the two minute mark, the crunching fuzz brutality breaks open to make way for a perfectly placed moment of heavenly melodicism. By the time you get to the end of the song's 4:26 running time, Young and Lanois have explored so many various dark, distorted textures, it hardly makes sense that this is the work of an aging rocker whose most unanimously recognized and acclaimed work was created over 30 years ago. Even with the vocals, the sounds here are much closer to music that is as concerned with crafting unique, physically moving sonic environments as it is with simply writing a song. Sleeps With Angels and unsung '90s masterpiece "Interstate" contained their fair share of reverb soaked atmosphere, but career moments like that merely hint at the near ambient noise layering that "Walk With Me" eventually devolves into. And even before you've arrived there, the experience of facing the roaring walls of fuzz that comprise the main section of this adventurous rock based music composition is more akin to listening to a Sunn O))) album: down-tuned, massive, overpowering... no drums necessary to knock you on your ass, melt your whole body down to a transparent watery liquid, and leave you honestly wanting to just listen to those fucking guitar chords for an hour straight.
Daniel Lanois definitely deserves a significant amount of credit for wrangling these sounds out of Neil and for fine tuning them in a way that makes this one of the most stunning sounding albums in recent memory, making Neil sound like the larger than life god that he deserves to be heard as on songs like "Walk With Me" and the finally released, absolutely demolishing rendition of "Hitchhiker." Thanks to Lanois's artistic guidance and skills as an engineer, the overall character of Le Noise is one that reminds the listener of what it's like to hear Neil Young at his most awe inspiringly powerful sounding, the Neil Young who pioneered an inimitable brand of dark Americana that was created in order to fight off the looming anxiety of mortality and dispel the demons of hate and human weakness with lumbering storms of electric guitar chords. In varying ways, artists that range from Earth to Pink Reason to The Dead C to Slint to Jandek to Mark Kozelek to Jason Molina have all managed to successfully channel this occasionally abrasive yet entirely beautiful and transfixing quality of Neil's music, that of staring into a bottomless abyss of human emotion while being steamrolled by the otherworldly quality of "Cowgirl In The Sand," "Cortez The Killer," "On The Beach," and more brilliant songs than nearly any other artist would have ever known what to do with. Hearing the completely fucked up and terrifying opening chords of "Hitchhiker" makes you glad that he waited this long to lay down the official studio recording. In addition to benefiting heavily from Lanois's signature dark sonics, the poignancy that the song takes on at this point in his life, particularly with the addition of a new verse, is absolutely crucial to its impact. For a song that is essentially a chronicle of the bridges burned and hardships endured along the trail of destruction that has been left behind by Neil Young, a man who as young as 29 was already distinguished as a ragged survivor, letting the song sit for years has only enhanced it. Consider that since the events described in "Hitchhiker," its writer has lost friends and nearly faced the risk of death from a brain aneurysm: the wait is the song.
I don't want the fact that I'm not going to write up another six paragraphs for each of this album's remaining songs to give off the impression that I'm selling the rest of Le Noise short. Tracks like "Sign of Love" and "Someone's Gonna Rescue You" serviceably communicate the album's moody vibe and as with the previously fawned over tracks, do sound as if Neil is singing them from atop a mountain of awesome distorted guitars. And despite the occasional dopey lyric heard in "Love & War" and "Angry World," the songs nevertheless retain the record's intriguingly intimate qualities and give the first half of Le Noise some shape as it leads up to the final one-two-three punch of "Hitchhiker," the aching seven minute long acoustic "Peaceful Valley Boulevard," and "Rumblin'," a song that would be the devastating existential soul searching black hole of the album if not for the towering inferno of "Hitchhiker." These closing tracks represent the heart of Le Noise, the sound of one of music's most visceral artists being provided with the proper atmosphere to let his potential for transcendence shine through more visibly than it has in a long time. Not unlike the final moments of On The Beach, the ending of this album leaves one with the impression that if Neil Young were to die within days of its completion, it would be the perfect sign-off. It's not something that I like to think about, but it still underlines why this is such a beautifully put together collection of songs that's captivating from start to finish and a reminder of how rich and engaging the work of truly experienced artists can be.
Rating: Four and a half stars out of five on the All Music Guide scale.
Download Link: Just get the whole thing from somewhere.