Neil Young throws out the concepts with 'Le Noise'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
New Neil Young albums are met these days with a healthy dose of skepticism. And rightfully so. The man is an artist in the truest form, following his muse in whatever direction he sees fit, but many times in the past decade, it has taken him down some strange pathways.
A quick rundown: 2002’s Are You Passionate? was a better idea on paper, the pairing of Young with Booker T. & the MGs, as the results were so-so. Greendale worked better live after he’d given Crazy Horse a chance to learn the songs — he had the band record mostly first takes on the album. Prairie Wind, for me, missed the mark. Living With War was solid, but was such a product of its time that several of its songs are completely and forever rooted in 2006. Chrome Dreams II had moments, as did Fork in the Road.
Now we’ve wound our way back to 2010, a mid-term election year, still deeply rooted in economic crisis, still fully in the throes of a technological revolution. If Neil Young wants to make an album, there are many themes he could apply. And themes are what most of those records of the 2000s share in common. Themes, unless we’re talking about Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois or the Hold Steady's Separation Sunday, are hard to pull off. One song on a subject? Anyone can do that. Ten or twenty songs? It might get stretched a little thin, and that’s what Young has been dealing with, whether the theme was love, war, the environment, cars, whatever.
Here, on the Daniel Lanois-produced Le Noise, there is no theme, just eight songs, played by Young on a lone guitar. The linking element is Lanois’ production, turning Young’s electric into a sonic instrument of justice. Young coaxes sounds that are reminiscent of his wild Weld years, moaning and wailing, but confined within the space of himself. I make no bones that he is at his best when he’s raw, whether that’s backed by screaming distortion or a stark acoustic. Here, he's nothing if not raw.
Of course, none of this matters if Young hasn’t written a decent set of songs, but he has — bare, straight ahead, and just ambiguous enough to measure up to his finer moments. “Walk with Me” has a stripped-down stare and raucous backing. “Sign of Love” is steady and brooding, while “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” is his best solo acoustic song in at least 10 years; maybe more.
The highlight is “Hitchhiker,” a loose song hanging around for at least 20 years. It’s finally given a proper release and is rendered frantic and ragged, just teeming with energy and restlessness.
Best of all? Instead of getting bogged down in a bizarre concept, Young has returned to experimenting a bit with his sound. While this is undeniably Neil, it doesn’t necessarily sound like any record he’s ever made. He’s allowed an outside producer to work with him, and without overproducing, captured a moment rather than just recording whatever came out first and being done with it.
The record, in full, sounds like a record. It doesn’t sound like an idea, or an interesting thought, or a statement. Le Noise just sounds like a record, and a good one at that. He hasn’t made one of those in a while. Maybe that’s the hardest kind of theme to nail down.