Neil Young – Le Noise (2010)

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Even after a damaging season of loss, Neil Young remains, as always, restless and relentless — imbuing the modernistic, reverb-soaked “Le Noise” with a kind of anti-melancholy. He hasn’t stopped searching for light in the darkness and, even now, somehow never sounds quite the same from album to album.

This time, Young partners with producer Daniel Lanois (Peter Gabriel, the Neville Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, U2), recording alone with his guitar in an atmosphere that sounds nothing like the typical unplugged session.

Lanois, having taken his Acadian-influenced hippie-voodoo vibe from New Orleans to the uber-cool Silverlake area of Los Angeles, didn’t hand Young any old instrument. He’d been working on a specially designed hollow-body Gretsch electric contraption. Lanois then processed and tweaked the stripped-down sessions to give them sonics that are loud and layered, but also haunted and honest — something that’s instantly old-timey, brilliant and new.

There’s no Stills, no Crosby or Nash and no Crazy Horse. The textured, live-sounding “Le Noise” — set for release on Sept. 28 by Reprise Records — finds a place in between Young’s acoustic work and his more muscular full-band rock music.

That’s where this left turn differs from previous vanity projects like Young’s 1982 synthesizer/vocoder oddity “Trans,” 1985’s cornpone countrified “Old Ways” or even 1991’s hurricane of feedback “Arc/Weld.”

Alone in these kind of spooky surroundings (the duo, it’s said, only recorded on nights when there was a full moon), Young can hear himself think again — even if the questions, in the end, aren’t all that much different from his days with Buffalo Springfield during the Vietnam War era.

He admits that the songs, then as now, were mostly about love and war. And for that, he makes no excuses. After all, Young seems to surmise, what unites us more often — in protest, or else in prayer?

Ours is still an angry world, and his song of the same title includes this imitative loop recalling both the hopes and fears that we all carry. There’s not much solace, though: “Some see life as hope eternal; some see life as a business plan,” Young sings.

Unable to find answers from without, Young perhaps inevitably turns within — examining his own restless individuality. Again, he isn’t compelled to over-explain. “Said a lot of things I can’t take back,” Young reminds, “and I don’t know if I want to.”

This tough-minded introspection leads back to other familiar places.

“Sign of Love” bears more than a passing resemblance to “Cinnamon Girl” — one of the more recognizable tunes recorded with Young’s old California garage band buddies in Crazy Horse. Here, Young talks about how relationships can nurture us through pain: “We both have silver hair, and a little less time, but there are still roses on the vine.”

“Hitchhiker,” sounding like something written in the narcotic 1970s, has been banging around since at least the 1992 tour in support of “Harvest Moon” — though it only just now sees official release on “Le Noise.” “Love and War” also strongly recalls “Hey, Hey, My, My.”

“I’ve tried to leave my past behind,” the always willful, though a little less contrary Young admits at one point, “but it’s catching up with me.”

Then “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” goes even further back, implicitly exploring the symmetry — and the cost — found between today’s policy initiatives and this country’s brutal sense of manifest destiny in the old American West.

In so doing, Young connects with a new generation’s heightened sense of responsibility: “Who will be the one to lead this world?” he sings. “Who’ll be the one to protect God’s creation?”

“Le Noise,” however, doesn’t immediately achieve these vistas.

In fact, the opener “Walk With Me” at first seems like a rudimentary invitation to begin a relationship’s journey, just another nostalgic paean to love. But it eventually dissolves into a bright dissonance of feedback, tape-loops and the first of several echoing revelations about sacrifice and longevity.

Young recently endured the passing of a pair of important collaborators, filmmaker Larry “L.A.” Johnson (a key figure in Young’s recently launched career-spanning outtakes project) and multi-instrumentalist/producer Ben Keith — a concurrent absence that Young has already estimated will render as much as 70 percent of his full-band repertoire forever changed.

“I lost some people I was travelling with,” Young sings. “I miss the soul and the old friendship.”

He’s moved then to reassure those who have seen less in “Someone’s Gonna Rescue You,” and later rejoins an ongoing quest for redemption in earnest during the closing “Rumblin.”

Young senses a seismic shift overtaking us — “can’t you feel a new wind blowing? Don’t you recognize that sound?” — but is just as certain that lasting change comes not from programs or politicians, but from within.

“When will I learn how to listen?” Young sings. “When will I learn how to feel? When will I learn how to give back? When will I learn how to heal?”

Young, though still the wandering spirit, shares a lasting hopefulness on “Le Noise” — that he can fight through loss to find a deeper appreciation for what remains, that he can better understand himself and this world, that he can still help lead the way.

Even if it takes some time to get there, for Neil Young — and for us.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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