ZAK RATING: ***** (5 stars out of five)
I was sitting here in Zakland yesterday, working away (I'm fortunate that my work can involve the things I do to make money, or the things I do with music and filmmaking and art, and all of it involves me being creative, but it's still work in any case). At some point in the late afternoon, my darling Kat sent me an IM with a mysterious link and a happy face. I clicked it, and discovered that the new Neil Young album Le Noise was available for listening. Up to that point, I'd heard nothing at all, other than that Neil had developed a somewhat unlikely partnership with producer (and fellow Canadian) Daniel Lanois, and that they were working on a project together.
I didn't know what to expect of that, and frankly, I'd been a little concerned that the result would be some weird hybrid of Neil Young and U2. It wasn't an appealing thought. Despite that fact that I've been a Neil Young fan for about 25 years, and have respected almost everything Lanois has touched in his career as a producer, I wasn't sure how the two would mesh. Next, I found out something that really intrigued me: this was to be a Neil Young solo album (as opposed to recording with a rhythm section, as he's done with Crazy Horse, the Stray Gators, and many other collections of great backing performers). Well, I (and pretty much everyone else on the planet) have a preconception about NY solo records; you think of Neil strumming his acoustic guitar on songs like "The Needle and the Damage Done", or perhaps "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)".
Well... how was something like that going to jibe with the well-known Lanois sound? After all, he's the guy that did Peter Gabriel's So, U2's The Joshua Tree, and other albums where he seemed to treat the recording studio as another instrument. If there's one thing that was mostly constant in the ever-changing world of Neil Young, in all but a few exceptions, the studio stayed out of the way of the music. The less recording trickery, the shorter path between Neil and the recording medium, the better the albums were. We heavy fans of NY are all familiar with the motto of Neil's long-time producer David Briggs: "The more you think, the more you stink." So what the hell was this album going to be like? I had no idea, and there was probably even a little chip on my shoulder, expecting the worst.
Daniel Lanois in his home studio where the album was created. Photo: Luis Sinco (LA Times).
Having now listened to Le Noise in its entirety, I hereby proclaim myself an asshole for having prejudged this album. I really, really should have known better. This is the first time in many years that the experience of listening to a Neil Young album has produced chills down my spine. To understand why, you should have some idea of how this music was made, and why it's simultaneously similar and different than anything Neil's done in the past.
Neil in a screen cap from the "Angry World" video.
First, yes: it's a solo album. There's no drums, no bass, no pedal steel guitar, no backing vocals to augment Neil's performance. But as opposed to the familiar solo acoustic songs that Neil's done many times, this is a solo electric album for six of the eight songs (the other two do use acoustic, but in ways you've never heard from NY before). Well, the electric guitar has never been the choice of the solo singer-songwriter. In its raunchier modes, its sound usually competes too much with the voice for the song to be highlighted.
And that, my friends, is where Daniel Lanois comes in. Neil had spoken to him about producing this solo album, and had originally intended on walking in with his old Martin guitar and doing something that I'm sure would have been acceptable to his fans. But after throwing ideas back and forth, apparently Lanois did or said something to Neil that allowed Neil to trust him. The result is a combination of Neil's honest, heartfelt songwriting with Lanois' incredible ability to weave sonic tapestries. There are no overdubs here, despite what your ears may tell you. Neil and Daniel used some special gear and recording/mixing techniques to deliver a huge wall of sound that moves, changes, echoes, pans, fades in and out, and otherwise keeps you spellbound while you listen, despite the fact that the guitars and vocals were recorded live at Lanois' home studio here in the Los Angeles area. With Neil's blessing, Lanois treated the moods of the songs as if he were doing audio post-production for a movie, and the resulting picture is painted in a way that keeps the listener fascinated the whole way through.
Lanois himself does a better job of explaining this process than I ever could. Check out this little interview...
Now, you may be wondering: does all this production cause you to lose sight of the artist himself? No, not in the slightest. The songs are all 100% Neil. I hear vibes that hearken back to nearly every phase of Neil's career. The ghosts of "The Loner", of "Cinnamon Girl", "A Man Needs a Maid", of the techno sound of Trans, of the feedback-laden assault of Weld, the sparse beauty of the Dead Man soundtrack, and more. In any case, since this is an album review of sorts, perhaps we should talk about the songs.
"Walk With Me" opens the album abruptly, with a powerful D chord that will rattle the fillings in your teeth if you have the stereo cranked. It also sets the tone for the album; if you don't know what to expect, you might be thinking that big drums will be soon following that menacing opening chord. Nope! Neil's voice comes in loud and clear, and perhaps more confident-sounding than it has in a long time. Also, you immediately start getting the vibe of Lanois' sonic treatment; while Neil played the song once, his producer was able to bring back sections of the guitar and voice in echoes, loops, and filters that burrow into the depths of your brain. In any case, the drums never come (it's like "Waiting for Godot" in that aspect), but you never feel like the sound is too sparse. At various points it's bright and muffled at once, while never abandoning the strength of the songwriting in exchange for sonic gimmicks. I love how it decays and comes back at several points. A great start! Let's see if the rest of Le Noise holds up!
"Sign of Love" once again returns to the D-modal key we've heard so often from NY over the years. It's another song that starts with an unsettling degree of menace, and ends with a gorgeous flux of feedback and a few sparse notes that function nominally as a solo. I believe this is one of Neil's love songs for his wife, Pegi, and you're left with no doubt about his love for his woman. The next track, "Someone's Gonna Rescue You", opens with a cool riff, accompanied by the great line, "Somewhere in the ray of sunshine, you'll find the dark". Who is Neil singing to here? It very well might be himself. Is this song in D major or D minor? Yes. Yes, it is.
Track four on Le Noise is the first of two acoustic-based songs on the album, this one called "Love And War". It's here where we can picture a gunslinger walking past the saloon toward his nemesis at high noon. The song itself is an anti-war prayer that portrays mothers trying to tell children why their daddies will never come home. Neil turns introspective at one point, explaining why he continues to sing about the title topic. It's a haunting track that ranks up there with any of his great acoustic songs over his 45+ year career.
That brings us to what might be the highlight on an album full of them: "Angry World". I can't do justice to the song by writing about it. Just... listen.
The next song on the album is particularly special, but for a different reason. Back in 1976, Neil had a burst of creativity which led to a multitude of great songs being recorded in a short time frame. Some of these songs ("Powderfinger", "Ride My Llama", "Pocahontas") ended up on Neil's classic album Rust Never Sleeps, but in the classically perverse NY style, some remained unreleased. For the new album, Neil did a new version of "Hitchhiker" (formerly known as "Like an Inca"), one of his most self-revealing, confessional songs of his career. It's an amazing rendition, with the song's story of drugs and living life not obscured by the light sonic treatments.
The penultimate track, "Peaceful Valley Boulevard", is the other acoustic song on Le Noise. Speaking of "Powderfinger", this song is an amazing Western story that starts in the past, ends in the future, and sucks you in from the first line. It has one of the most haunting set of bridge chords on any NY song I've ever heard... the lushness and spookiness is perhaps more reminiscent of mid-70s Bowie than most things you associate with Neil Young.
Finally, the album ends with "Rumblin'", a song that really focuses the spotlight on Lanois' production while also shining on Neil's song. He cries, "When will I learn how to listen? When will I learn how to feel? When will I learn how to give back?", and you really want to tell him that he's done so, many times over. Neil seems excited by the newness of his own sound, and stops to recognize that change is in the air. It certainly is. Eventually, the track dissolves in a swirling morass of looping, filtered notes, and the experience of Le Noise is over... until you go back and re-listen to these amazing songs, which I predict you may do immediately.
Le Noise goes on sale on September 28. You can pre-order it now on Neil's site. But first, why not check it out for free? From now through October 5, you can stream the entire album from NPR. I highly recommend you do so. Le Noise is very likely the best album Neil's done in a decade or more, and may end up ranking among the top NY albums of history, along with EKTIN, Harvest, Rust Never Sleeps, and the rest. Thank you, Neil, for once again proving that you do indeed have something to give back to the world.