Neil Young’s Le Noise: The Treasure of Distortion and Truth
by Terry Roland
Neil Young is always willing to take things a little further along than the rest of the pack. While many roots artists are still catching up with the Cash/Rubin era of bare-to-the-bone acoustic recordings which began in the 90’s, Young has released Le Noise with the considerable visionary support of Daniel Lanois (even the album’s name seems to echo a tribute to the great producer who has recently recovered from a life-threatening motocycle accident) and has given us a singular stripped-down distortion-driven album; lyrical and vulnerable, with studio effects commonly used to shield rather than expose. The success of La Noise hinges on the writer’s ability to engage and the artist’s willingness to risk, something Young has been doing for decades with sometimes stunning successes and failures. Past misgivings about Neil going experimental has been his own potential to allow the medium to overcome the content. Le Noise, however, finds Young striking a balance that is rare in the razor-edged walk between commercial accessibility and artistic success. Lanois and Young have found this balance and carefully walk us through eight masterful tracks.
Reportedly, at the recent listening party, held in Los Angeles, the album was played with lights low. This is an advisable way to listen to much of Neil Young’s work, but most especially to this one. On the crunch & crash boogie flavored” Walk with Me”; we are invited to join Neil, his guitar, amp and effects on this session as he feels the ‘patience of unconditional love.’ And isn’t this what every true artist invites us to for a while with the hope of such acceptance? He is in a place of faith, which allows us to see through his eyes for just a while. He tells us, ‘I feel the strength; I feel your faith in me.’ And if you bring this faith to to Le Noise, as you listen, the ride is a wild one.
Each track is built around a simple distorted progression of chords and centered lyrical reference points. If many artists invite us into their living room for a chat and a time of stories; Neil has beckoned us to the top of a high-rise, back-alley fire escape above a cityscape where he points out his insights and enlightenments amidst the crowd of city dwellers and the constant hint of violence and potential danger. But, still, he sees a ‘sign of love.’ And such is the tension built into the themes of this new record.
The acoustically built “Love and War” find the songwriter admitting his own ignorance of two of his most essential themes. He returns again to the subject of the album, Living with War, but with an attitude of forlorn acceptance in this post-Bush era of sometimes sad resignation. “Daddy won’t ever come home,” is a line which echoes from the song and our own common history. But, like the universal soul he is, he admits, ‘I sang for justice and I hit a bad chord, but still I try to sing about love and war.” The song represents a kind of relief for the listener used to Neil’s more popular acoustic leanings. But, these days Neil never lets us off easy with musing like “Heart of Gold,” and “Old Man.” Instead, he wants us to see….”it’s an angry world,” we live in. We live with uncertainty and discomfort and still we must challenge what we see and move on.
“Hitchhiker” is a reminder how Neil is not so much a storyteller as a lyrical movie maker. We see the early days of an artist bent on drug excesses as he moves into the golden California land of success then into paranoia and the eventual peace of the countryside. It’s a worm’s eye view of the underside of a life in pursuit of success but pulled down by his own sense of art, imagery and the need to be someone outside of the mould constantly presented to him. But, even with the seemingly happy ending, he then reminds us in another song of the violence which befalls a “Peaceful Valley.”
The success of this new album is the way it highlights Neil Young as a performance artist who invites us into this world he’s created of a single artist in his familiar elements. And we have the faith to go. If the universe reverberates with the basic elements of earth, wind, fire and water, Young shows us on Le Noise, that his elements are acoustic guitars, the distorted, unplanned crunch of his electric power chords, trance like words that have the power to challenge and to change and a willingness to invite us along on a ride which is both universal and personal.