Album Review

Neil Young "Le Noise"

Brian Ahnmark
“It's better to burn out than to fade away.”

When Neil Young penned his most famous lyric more than 30 years ago, he cemented in writing the edict that has guided his career since day one. It's an epic, unparalleled tale of brilliance, failure and redemption, a twisted road littered with commercial success (Harvest), cult classics (Tonight's the Night), unreleased masterpieces (Homegrown), failed experiments (Trans) and, well, an album that got him sued by his own label (Old Ways).

But over 40+ years as a songwriter, Neil's most enviable trait has been the resiliency of a cockroach – that, and an uncanny knack for delivering classic records at the precise moment his muse seems adrift. Consider 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, which gave Neil second life after his self-titled debut barely registered a blip on the popular music radar. Or 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, a half-acoustic/half-electric monster that resuscitated Neil from his bleak 1970s blues. Or 1989’s Freedom, where Neil rediscovered his classic songwriting vein after a decade of alienating experimentation.

But in recent years, a steady retreat from prominence begged the question: Would Neil Young burn out or fade away?

There was certainly no lack of quantity. Following 1999's gentle masterwork Silver & Gold, a furious output of material turned increasingly blurred and bizarre. There was (in chronological order) a misguided attempt at soul, an environmental concept album, an uneven attempt to recreate his early-1970s heyday, an apoplectic diatribe against the presidency of George W. Bush, a patchwork of forgotten old songs and hastily-arranged new ones, and a tribute inspired by a LincVolt electric automobile.

There is no questioning the man's convictions or his dedication to songcraft. But during this decade, the quality suffered as the quantity bloated. To be frank, Young sounded old, dangerously feeble and unfocused.

But a brutal 2010 in Young's personal circle changed everything. First he lost a dear friend in L.A. Johnson, a movie producer who collaborated with Young on several concert films. Then Neil lost musical sidekick Ben Keith, a legend in his own right who had been Young's go-to multi-instrumentalist since the Harvest era.

Over the summer, Young comrade David Crosby let slip that Neil was working on a solo album with producer Daniel Lanois, known for his work with Bob Dylan and U2. Lanois himself was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident during the recording sessions. Crosby referenced the apparent jinx upon Young, predicting that from the darkness Neil would surface with a mournful, introspective acoustic epitaph in honor of the departed.

But lest we forget, it is Neil Young we’re talking about here, master of the musical left-turn. And glory hallelujah, the shape-shifter has returned with a vengeance.

Le Noise sounds unlike anything Neil has ever created. And although Young is the sole musician performing, calling Le Noise a solo album is a misleading declaration. In truth, the “backing band” is Lanois, whose swirling sonicscapes are every bit as critical – and creative – as Young’s. (Need proof? After announcing a working album title of Twisted Road, Neil ultimately changed the handle in tribute to the producer’s genius.) With this effort, Lanois just may have notched his finest accomplishment: Helping make Neil Young relevant again.

The very concept of the fiercely independent Young enlisting the aid of a producer raised eyebrows. But Lanois’ impact cannot be underestimated. He challenged Neil to tap into the present, to siphon his grief and anger and fragility into song. A significant amount of material was abandoned as Lanois prodded Young to reignite his dormant greatness. To emphasize Neil’s inimitable passion as a performer, Lanois invited Young to record in his Los Angeles mansion, amplified a vocal microphone through organ bellows installed in the walls, plugged in a slew of guitars, and let the creator create. After capturing the live performances, Lanois the Mad Wizard began to work his magic.

Lanois and Young whittled the album down to an eight-song set – six electric, two acoustic – and it packs a wallop. The autobiographical poignancy of Young’s writing, slathered in the rich texture of Lanois’ production work, escalates as a spirited battle of one-upmanship.

The first sign that something is (wonderfully) awry: Opener “Walk With Me” assaults the ear with a tsunami of electric lava erupting from Neil’s White Falcon Gretsch, instantaneously melting whatever rust and cobwebs Young had accumulated in recent years. The chiming riff evokes a war dance atop a bludgeoning drop-D thunderclap foundation, as Young roars into his most passionate vocal performance in ages: “I feel your love / I feel your strong love / I feel the patience of unconditional love.” It’s as though the message bears so much weight, Neil must unload it repeatedly to convey the meaning. The surprise twist: This isn’t a love song. “I lost some people I was traveling with / I miss the soul and the old friendship,” Young sings, his voice emerging like a hulking nightmare from Lanois’ burbling feedback squall.

Suddenly, the inspiration is clear. Le Noise is Neil’s defiant ambush of death, stasis, and the passage of time. While the lyrical motifs are familiar – love, war, family, loss – never before has Young delivered them with such fervor.

If the sound of Neil Young’s brain hatching a song could be harnessed, it would sound like this: a hurricane with a melody. The electric performances sizzle with purpose, distorted guitar buzz arming each lyric with a razor edge. “Sign of Love” has to be the most violent composition ever written about holding hands; Neil sings, “When we both have silver hair and a little less time / But there still are roses on the vine,” pounding out chords as if to prove his own vitality. But there is subtlety, as well; “Someone’s Gonna Rescue You” features Young’s crystalline high tenor floating over a threatening, demented hook.

“Angry World” is Lanois’ finest hour, an utter mindfuck of fury built around a tornado of vocal loops. Whether intentional or not, the continuous chopped circuit sounds like a possessed Young repeating the phrase, “Hate me.” It’s not a request. It’s a dare from Neil to these modern times, a square peg railing against the round hole of society.

The acoustic numbers astound, thanks to the seamless interaction between the masters. “Love and War” is a moving songwriter’s lament, with Young acknowledging – though not apologizing for – past transgressions: “I said a lot of things that I can’t take back, and I don’t really know if I want to.” The sparse guitar sounds born of dusty saloons and tumbleweeds, a fitting image of loneliness to accompany the unrepentant narrator. “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” is an instant classic, a performance so perfect that the flaws become part of the perfection. It’s a ballad about the death of new frontiers, brought on by the encroachment of man. The stark, wrenching story weaves from pioneer exploits and Native American massacres to the gold rush and electric cars and melting ice caps and the very creation of human life. Delicate guitar work glows atop Lanois’ cushion of reverb, and Young’s voice is arrested in an ageless, timeless state of grace.

It's not music so much as art. And only Neil Young could create it.

The gravity carried by “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” initially makes an afterthought of album closer “Rumblin’.” But the wistful lyric ultimately sinks in and penetrates the conscience: “When will I learn how to listen? When will I learn how to feel? When will I learn how to give back? When will I learn how to heal?” This sermon of self-doubt is a fitting salute from the songwriter to his bygone allies, the fond farewell that Neil never had the chance to deliver face to face. The yearning for self-improvement also suggests a perpetual thirst for reformation, a rallying cry for yet another unpredictable, impulsive maneuver by an indestructible legend.

Neil Young is Young Neil once again, a man incapable of burning out or fading away. And thus, his immortality endures.