Neil Young, Daniel Lanois, and Old Black team up to deliver a late-career masterpiece.
Neil Young is easily the most frustrating of the old-school rock legends. His M.O. puts a premium on spontaneity, which means that a number of his albums feature ideas that could have benefited from a little refinement, or, in some cases, that should not have come to fruition at all ("I'll write an album about my electric car!"). At the same time, though, this approach has also yielded his most compelling music, including some made after many of his contemporaries had ceased even aspiring to relevance. This is why I'm not alone in believing that Neil Young has one more classic album left in him, when few would express similar hopes about, say, the Rolling Stones. I've also been afraid that this great album would trickle out, one song at a time, over Young's next eight or nine records.
Thankfully, Le Noise solves that. It's fantastic. It's his best in decades, at least since Ragged Glory.
It's also without a clear precedent in Young's catalogue. Sidestepping the mellow acoustic/barnstorming electric dichotomy that characterizes nearly everything Young has done, Le Noise is solo electric -- just Young and his crushing guitar. It's loud and heavy enough to satisfy adrenaline junkies and Crazy Horse fans, but retains a starkness and immediacy that would be difficult to replicate in a full-band setting. Its relatively concise 38-minute runtime keeps the admittedly limited sonic palette from wearing thin, and the swirling echoes of Young's voice and guitar (presumably courtesy of producer Daniel Lanois) fill out the sound, and add an air of psychedelic mystery.
The opening songs, "Walk with Me" and "Sign of Love" are perhaps the record's least successful. They're still really good, mind you; it's just not until the minor arpeggios and falsetto vocals of "Someone's Gonna Rescue You" that the album truly kicks into high gear. "Love and War" changes the tone with an acoustic folk song about the titular topics, as well as a songwriter's attempts to make sense of them. "Angry World" marries ambiguous lyrics that are either a howl of frustration or a condemnation of bitterness and cynicism to a brutally heavy riff. It works. It's awesome.
But then comes "Hitchhiker", and it's incredible. It's as nakedly personal as anything Young has written since the Ditch Trilogy. The first several verses are straight autobiography, a laundry list of drugs, infidelities, and other transgressions. About four minutes in, it takes a turn for the surreal: "I thought I was an Aztec / Or a runner in Peru." Young has previously said that his songs often don't have literal meanings, so much as connotative meanings arising from words and dreamlike images. But coming after verses with such clear autobiographical content, and relying on such well-worn Young tropes as time travel and indigenous peoples, it's hard not to see this as some sort of commentary on Young's songwriting, perhaps as a vehicle for escape. After that verse, the song ends abruptly on a more direct and sobering note:
I tried to leave my past behind
But it's catching up with me …
I don't know how I'm standing here
Living in my life
I'm thankful for my children
And my faithful wife
The juxtaposition of the Incan fantasy and this conclusion seems to present an intriguing dilemma: disappear into art and fiction (and drugs), or take a chance on real-world redemption, which carries with it the inescapable fact of past mistakes? "Hitchhiker" also casts some previous songs in a new light, perhaps revealing the source of some of the frustration in "Angry World", and amplifying the reflective tone of "Love and War". In short, it's exactly the sort of song you'd hope to hear from an elder statesman of rock and roll: mature, with wisdom and perspective, but still vital and rebellious.
It would almost have to be downhill from there. "Peaceful Valley Boulevard" is the most traditional Neil Young-type song on here, a seven-minute epic about westward expansion. Its lyrics about massacred buffalo and pollution could have been trite in lesser hands, but here Young conjures up a kind of aching majesty -- sort of a Californian "Cortez the Killer". "Rumblin'" ends proceedings on an ominous note, combining imagery both natural ("I feel a rumblin' in the ground") and personal ("When will I learn how to feel?").
By turns mellow and heavy, personal and abstract, Le Noise encapsulates nearly everything that you'd want or need from a Neil Young album, and does so in a novel yet organic way. That Young takes risks with his music at this stage in his career is remarkable enough; that this one has paid off so handsomely is nothing short of spectacular. Welcome back, Shakey.