Record Review: Come On, Feel Le Noise
I wish to marry a cinnamon girl,
Purple canaries that live in the air
That could fly away from the world
With a cinnamon girl
Love, take me away from the world …
Glitter your diamonds and rattle your pearls
Maybe I’ll buy one and carry it home for
My cinnamon girl …
If those words aren’t entirely familiar, you can thank Neil Young’s artistic judgment. They come from an early draft of lyrics for what is indisputably one of the singer’s signature songs, “Cinnamon Girl,” and they were included in hand-written form as part of the myriad documents in Young’s sprawling box set, Archives Vol. 1.
We could argue, I suppose, whether subsequent successful drafts (“Ten silver saxes, a bass with a bow …”) are any more coherent or meaningful (and I would argue they most definitely ARE). What can’t be argued is that at some point Young took a look at his early draft, found it wanting and went back to the drawing board. The sing-songy, almost nursery rhyme-like quality of the familiar lyric to “Cinnamon Girl,” was a product of trial and error, even as the words seem to unspool from the singer’s mouth in authentically organic fashion. When coupled with the thundering skronk of early Crazy Horse, it made for one of the most memorable pieces of music in Young’s catalog.
It would be an understatement to declare that the very thing that has sustained Neil Young’s art has also been his greatest liability: his penchant for following his muse wherever it leads, without too much calculation or second thought. That impulsive streak has inspired Young to some of his greatest work, the impact of which goes beyond quantifiable explanation and attains a kind of universal accessibility. We can’t necessarily explain why every image or rhyme or chord of a masterpiece like “Thrasher” (from Rust Never Sleeps) carries such an undeniable impact on the first or 300th listen, it just … does. You may not always literally understand what Young is saying or follow a coherent narrative, but you often vividly feel what he is attempting to convey in song.
Young’s newest record, Le Noise, is, in the context of the singer’s prodigious output of non-archival material in recent years, both more of the same and something completely different. In the latter category, producer Daniel Lanois has created a unique sonic soundscape. There is no traditional rhythm section featured on the eight songs, but under the necromantic studio administrations of Lanois, there is plenty of bottom end thump. Recorded on location in Lanois’ Los Angeles crib, the guitars rumble and roar with Arcweldian fury, as Lanois slathers the works in reverb and echo worthy of Lee Perry. Has a solo singer-songwriter record ever rocked this hard? It’s a relief from the see-saw nature of Young’s recent records, which have tended to careen from reverent folk (2005’s Prairie Wind) to heavy-verging-0n-plodding rock (2006’s Living With War), occasionally within the same LP (2009’s Fork In The Road).
Le Noise sounds like it was created outside of Young’s comfort zone, and at least superficially the stretch seems to inspire Young. You can hear him lean into the vocals a little harder and dig a little deeper as he thrashes away on guitar. If Young had delivered a song like the opener, “Walk With Me,” to the Prairie Wind sessions, for example, you can imagine the tranquil country-rock backing that would have easily slid in behind the mournful, reflective lyric (“I lost some friends I was traveling with/I miss the soul and the old friendship”). Served up on a bed of fuzzed up guitar and Young’s neck-bulging vocal delivery, the sadness is traded up for defiance.
There are flares of lyrical inspiration across Le Noise, but they are spread pretty thin. A song like “Love and War” treats the subject of violent national conflict with puerile, if heartfelt and sincere, observations (“I sang in anger, hit another bad chord, but I still try to sing about love and war”). Compare that with the eviscerating treatment the same subject received in “Captain Kennedy,” a song which officially surfaced on Young’s 1980 album Hawks & Doves: “There’s water on the wood/And the sails feel good/And when get to shore I hope that I can kill good.” Likewise, it is hard to argue with the sentiment expressed in Le Noise‘s “Angry World,” but there’s nothing to suggest Young’s editorial red pen got anywhere near a second cut at the lyrics. There might have been a great song lurking in there somewhere, but we end up with what sounds like the first-draft, purple canaries version of “Cinnamon Girl” instead of a worthy addition to Young’s songbook.
That’s not to say Young can’t still find that sweet spot between quicksilver inspiration and enduring greatness. Young is often at his best when reflecting on his own life and “Hitchhiker” transforms Young’s back pages into Le Noise‘s most compelling moment. Superficially, it’s a trip through the history of Young’s drug use — from Young’s first sampling of hashish while hanging out on the Toronto folk scene in the 1960s through his post-divorce cocaine use in the 70s, before arriving in the present-day.
Now many years have come and gone
Like friends and enemies,
Tried to leave my past behind
But it’s catching up with me
Don’t know how I’m standing here living in my life
I’m thankful for my children and for my faithful wife
The song cuts off abruptly on the last word, which spins off into a galaxy of loopy echo. The narrative in the lyrics could not be more straightforward, but you sense more care in the telling and in the presentation. There’s a finality — a mortality — to the track that is positively chilling.
Young took a chance with the sound and style of Le Noise, and it resulted in one of his most listenable collections of new songs in many years. That outcome would have only been improved if the artist had applied the same level of daring and invention to his songwriting in a more consistent and sustained manner.