“I’m on this journey, I don’t want to walk alone,” Neil Young sings with strident force on the opening track on Le Noise, which is ironic given that this is a completely solo recording. Young has been one of the most heavily indulged of the legendary songwriters in recent years, attracting fervent comment and occasionally even rave reviews for albums that have veered from the whimsical and insubstantial (Prairie Wind, Are You Passionate?) to well-intentioned but clunkily expressed idealism (Living With War, Greendale). For an artist hailed as a musical chameleon, he has too often been content with retreading old ground, with endless variations on the Crazy Horse stomp or that comforting, homespun acoustic shimmer he can create in his sleep.
Le Noise arrives with familiar hype but an important new angle. This is Young’s first collaboration with a producer since the death of Larry Johnson and the first time he has worked with Daniel Lanois (who added his distinctive echo chamber production values to albums as diverse as U2‘s The Joshua Tree, Bob Dylan‘s Time Out Of Mind and Emmylou Harris‘ Wrecking Ball). Rather than a solo acoustic album, Le Noise sees Lanois recording the distinctive heavy and muddy sound of Young’s Grey Falcon electric guitar. The result is a peculiar, occasionally brilliant mix of standard Young tropes and radical approaches.
There is a weighty past from which Young still struggles to escape. A song title like ‘Sign Of Love’ harks back at two previous Young compositions – Prime Of Life from 1994’s Sleeps With Angels (arguably his last outstanding album) and Act of Love from Mirror Ball, 1995’s collaboration with Pearl Jam. Although it comes swathed in layers of distortion and Lanois’ trademark reverb, it could still have been written at any point in Young’s post-Crazy Horse career. One of the best songs here, the lengthy drug autobiography Hitchhiker, does indeed date back to 1974 but languished uncompleted until now. On the superb Love and War, Young seems to wryly acknowledge the power of his past and the longevity of his themes (“I sang for justice and I hit a bad core but I still try and sing about love and war”).
Le Noise also sometimes suffers from Young’s tendency towards clumsiness. It’s hard to tell whether the sentiment of Angry World (“and everything is gonna be alright, yeah”) is earnest or a caustic parody. Walk With Me arguably substitutes distortion and forced volume in the vocals for any real sense of urgency or power. The chord changes and melodies in both songs are instantly recognisable as Young’s work, possibly to the extent that they have been recycled from other songs.
Lanois offers a combination of colossal guitar distortion, reverb and bizarre reconstituted vocal loops. The latter of these sonic characteristics is both the most alien to Young’s sound and the most problematic. It sometimes seems like this piece of sonic trickery does little to enhance the overall atmosphere, yet Lanois deploys it repeatedly, to irritating effect (particularly on Angry World, which concludes with looped snippets of Young’s nasal voice). It doesn’t sound particularly contemporary or edgy.
In spite of all this, though, Le Noise is still comfortably Young’s best work since Mirror Ball. It contains some major songs – the kind of rich, allusive narratives that suggest Young still has the ability and determination to make substantial statements. Hitchiker, finally finished, is both terrifying and exhilarating, and showcases the best electric guitar sound on the album. When Young suggests his family rescued him from oblivion, he at last finds a potent content for his sincerity (and Lanois’ vocal relays actually work here, adding a poignant sense of the tragedy that could have been – the tragedy that befell some of Young’s colleagues).
It might be ironic though that the most triumphant songs here – the subtle, controlled and touching Love And War and the rambling epic Peaceful Valley Boulevard, are the acoustic ones, on which Lanois’ echoes suggests the presence of ghosts. Might Le Noise have been a more substantial work had it included Leia and You Never Call, two acoustic songs performed on the Twisted Road tour but which did not make Young and Lanois’ supposedly rigorous final cut here? Either Way, Le Noise is the sound of a restless and prolific artist striving to deal with the burden of his great legacy.