Fans of Neil Young have come to expect the unexpected. He’s reached the point in his career (and life — Young will turn 65 on Nov. 12) where it becomes hard not to retreat into the past and repeat himself. Young is not one to stand pat or back down. He’s like the prototypical gunfighter of the old west, still fast on the draw, still on top of his game.
With Le Noise (Reprise), Young once again cheats the ticking clock, changing his frame of reference with a sonic assault that is beautifully structured by producer Daniel Lanois, whose credits include works by Peter Gabriel, U2 and Bob Dylan.
Recorded in Lanois’ mansion in Los Angeles, Le Noise, according to the producer, “is just a man on a stool and me doing a nice job on the recording.” Modesty aside, Lanois brings a palette of sonic textures to Young’s compositions that enhances without burying the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s signature guitar sound. Lanois refines but never obscures the bite in Young’s tales, enhancing the performer’s sharp-edged songs and masterful feedback.
Young’s major weapons of choice here are a hollow-body Gretsch White Falcon guitar and Lanois’ custom-made electric-acoustic hybrid. Young almost but never quite disappears beneath Lanois’ tape loops, distortion and echo effects. Like a ghost haunting the mansion’s long hallways and cathedral ceilings, the overall sound is ethereal and at times eerie.
Love, loss and war are the main themes here, as the lyrics search for solid ground and stability in a world being torn apart by war and stripped away by the loss of friends (such as sideman Ben Keith and producer Larry Johnson). The opening track, “Walk With Me,” is classic Young, a love story filled with lament and portent, an ode to lost friends and loves, a hand reaching out for comfort.
“Love and War” is one of the quietest and most powerful tracks here. “There’ve been songs about love/I sang songs about war/since the back streets of Toronto.” Young’s sentiments haven’t changed much since his days with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. War is still the wound, and love is the suture to bind it. It may be Young’s most quintessential anthem on the condition of war. In the final line of the song, Young vows to continue to “Pray about love and war.”
“The Hitchhiker” is an autobiographical search for wisdom after countless mistakes. “Then came paranoia/And it ran away with me,” is just one of the afflictions the narrator encounters. The lyrics “I wish I was an Aztec/Or a runner in Peru/I would build such beautiful buildings/Like an Inca from Peru” are a sly reference to Young’s 1982 recording Trans, the experimental album (inspired by the German group Kraftwerk) that bears the most resemblance to Le Noise, in which Young’s use of the vocoder and other electronic treatments probably drove David Geffen to label the singer “uncommercial.”
The lyrics of “It’s An Angry World” hold out hope. “It’s an angry world and everything is going to be all right.” The same sentiment is embraced in “Someone’s Going to Rescue You.” The album ends with the song “Rumblin.’ ” The lyrics “When will I learn how to listen?/When will I learn how to feel?” bring a somber and thoughtful conclusion to a powerful album of engaging songs.
Le Noise (a play on Lanois’ surname) is a dance on the edge of a cliff, a concerto played in the heart of a hurricane, a levee valiantly holding off a tsunami. It is another successful experiment produced (along with Lanois) from the laboratory of Neil Young’s mind.
— By Donald Gavron