Release Date: Sep 28, 2010
Record label: Reprise
Genre(s): Singer/Songwriter, Pop/Rock
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.
Not a man to mince words or make nice with brand-name producers, eloquent crank Neil Young kept to the former and jettisoned the latter ideal by teaming with Daniel Lanois on this mostly solo album. Young’s sandblasting electric guitar sits handsomely alone before eerie rumbling atmospheres. Discord rules, even as a delicate acoustic guitar tips “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” into the pastoral red.
Littered about the desert are the remains of man’s missed steps; discarded junk and scattered ideas, slowly being buried under glassy sand. This is where much of Neil Young’s recent output collects rust as the warm winds warp any recognizable signs of triumph. Over there is Are You Passionate?, a glimpse at old rock soul buried under shoddy symbolism and a workman’s heroic utterance.
Neil Young has made a brilliant-66%-of-the-time career by not really retracing any of his previous steps. Even when he returns to a Harvest-like country-rock album or gets together again with Crazy Horse to bang out some big riffs, it seems like a natural and fluid movement out of what came before. In other words, Young's style is not having any concrete style at all—which is so admired by his legions of fans and assorted critics that even when it's bad, like the electronica-influenced Trans or the rockabilly-filled Everybody's Rockin', it's still admirable.
It perhaps befits a wilfully contrary artist that a bad review might act as the best advert imaginable for his new album. One august rock critic has already deemed Le Noise, his collaboration with U2 and Dylan producer Daniel Lanois, unlistenable. It's a response that should cause the ears of long-term Young fans to prick up. His worst records don't really incite that kind of violent reaction: they're just boring.
Neil Young's distinctive sound was defined so early in his career that any serious attempt he's made to reinvent himself has been hampered by listeners' desire for more of the same. It's got to be a frustrating situation - he can do Crazy Horse distortion or Harvest-style acoustic folk, and that's about it. With Le Noise, he owes producer Daniel Lanois some major thanks for finally managing to find a new sound for Young that still embodies everything we love about him.
Even by his own unpredictable standards, Neil Young's had a pretty contradictory decade. The confusingly titled Chrome Dreams II was one highlight, but some of its best tracks were decades-old. Last year's Fork in the Road was a lark, a neo-concept album about electric cars whose humor undersold Young's convictions. His angriest albums, Living With War and Greendale, were each instantly dated time capsules.
Producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Bob Dylan) adds a dash of the avant-garde to Neil Young’s latest, Le Noise, decorating these tracks with ambient atmosphere. But underneath that intriguing tinsel, it’s just one more late-period Young album, all grungy chords and ghostly falsetto. Kudos to him for continuing to evolve his sound after 40-plus years, but don’t bother with this until you’ve thoroughly memorized the two dozen or so superior entries in his back catalog.
When you’re an established artist that’s made well over 30 albums, it would normally be pretty difficult to avoid repeating yourself – unless you’re Neil Young. A man who has changed direction more times than most acts have changed their line up, Young has interspersed his regular jaunts into singer-songwriter territory and sludgey proto-grunge heaviness with electro dabblings, concept albums and avant-garde noise. Therefore, the announcement of a new record is usually then accompanied by a dissection of just what it might contain.
If there's an artist more stubborn in exploring his every artistic whim than Neil Young, then I'm not sure we're ready for him. Young's contrarian streak as a performer has yielded some of the finest rock records around. But there's also a dark side to it that's given us the vocoder weirdness of 1982's Trans, the rockabilly of 1983's Everybody's Rockin' (which he recorded as a fuck-you to the Geffen suits who demanded a "rock 'n roll record" from him), and most recently 2009's electric-car-obsessed Fork in the Road.
The old conventional wisdom on Neil Young used to be that he alternated between acoustic folk and full-on guitar skronk with every other album, but 2010’s Le Noise -- the French affection in its title a tongue-in-cheek tip of the beret to his producer Daniel Lanois -- melds the two extremes. At its core, it’s a singer/songwriter album, a collection of reflections and ruminations about life and loss in the modern world, war imagery rubbing against battered memories and tattered autobiography, the songs leisurely following their own winding path, but it’s produced loudly, with Neil supporting himself with only his electric guitar for all but two tracks, where he switches the Les Paul for an acoustic. He’s not in Crazy Horse mode, spitting out chunky garage rock riffs, but strumming his overdriven electric, with Lanois tweaking the results, accentuating the ambience in post-production.
From its first chord hit and sustained, distortion displacing air, Le Noise courts Neil Young's classic platters. "I feel your love," begins the forever Bay Area Canadian. "I feel your strong love. I feel the patience of unconditional love." Good thing, too, since we the planet gave that up beginning a half-century ago now.
Acoustic guitar players try to master his unique, timekeeping faux-clawhammer style. Electric players, whether or not they respect his tone, wish they could solo the same way, with their body language dictating the attack of the notes as much as their picks. Singers who sing a hundred times better than he does wish they had that kind of confidence at the mic.
Shakey’s back with his 34th studio album. Wyndham Wallace 2010 Neil Young now belongs to that rare stratum of artists whose work is no longer judged purely on its merits but on the basis of its status within their catalogue. As with Dylan and Bowie, interest lies not only in whether the latest record stands up to repeated listening, but what it says about them within the context of their career.