Bring Le Noise: Neil Young is back in the ditch
Neil Young is back in the ditch. Next Tuesday as our new paradigm Parliament shuffles towards getting stampy over who’s going to be Speaker, the old rock’n’roll paradigm will hit the music shops and internet stores.
A stunning and exciting collection of songs by Neil Young, very appropriately called Le Noise, is being released.
The album is Young’s first genuine solo record. He’s the only musician performing. There’s no band, no junk yard, indestructible rhythm section from then likes of Crazy Horse’s Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina. It’s the musician and his guitars, probably just two, the black electric Gibson Les Paul he purchased when he recorded Everybody Knows This is Nowhere in 1969 and one of his favourite Martin acoustics, perhaps a D-28 like that used by his favourite country singer, Hank Williams.
Of course, producer Daniel Lanois was there, too. He made those guitars, especially the electric one, sound like a drag race of diesel locomotives with emphatic and brain-snapping punctuation from some merciless punching of the bass string.
Lanois, who worked up the concept of Le Noise with Young, says it’s just the artist, the producer, the instruments and some sonics.
``I wanted to give (Young) something he’d never heard before,’’ said Lanois recently, adding elsewhere that the finished work was ``like nothing else’’ heard at the moment.
This prompted some caution and anxiety, even among die-hard Young fans. Was this another Weld, the 1991 live album with Crazy Horse that was so loud Young damaged his own hearing permanently while mixing the sounds.
Now that Le Noise is out and about, these fears have proven to be not just unfounded but supremely unnecessary.
This is one of Young’s best albums, standing alongside his early masterpiece Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the so-called Ditch Trilogy of Time Fades Away, Tonight’s The Night and On The Beach and the recent from the vaults classic Chrome Dreams II.
That Ditch Trilogy, recorded in the mid-1970s, was seen as Young’s artistic and personal reaction to being branded a ``middle of the road’’’ artist after the commercial success of Harvest and After The Goldrush. He just veered into the ditch.
Young fans regard this musical triptych as the high-point of his stellar career. There’s certainly little that betters any of them and together it is the most concentrated masterwork from 35-years writing and recording.
Well, just two months before his 65th birthday, Young has added another set of songs to his very top shelf.
After the interesting but not really enduring recent events - Fork In The Road, Living With War and Greendale - some thought Young’s best work was behind him.
From the opening guitar assault of the love song Walk With Me, you can hear the back catalogue that brought us here.
It’s classic Young, pushed out with attitude and defiance. There’s no caressing the notes from the guitar and Lanois twirls his knobs and stretches what he’s got to drip that last bitterness from a sound that rings like a broken bell next to the gentle lyrics.
Those lyrics fade away to leave Young shouting that he’s ``lost some people I was travelling with’’.
Is he remembering the recently departed steel guitarist Ben Keith or his film-making buddy LA Johnson, who also died in the last few months? Young has often paid tribute to his collaborators, sidekicks and friends in songs.
Soon we’re riding the record’s strongest rock song, Sign Of Love, a pile-driver that at first conjures up Cinnamon Girl but more properly echoes his anthem for the departed, Tonight’s The Night. As crisply original as this tune sounds on the disc, you can only begin to imagine what the world’s greatest garage band, Crazy Horse, would make of this. It wouldn’t just shake the floors of the stadium, it would knock china off sideboards suburbs away.
The strongest work on Le Noise is towards the end of what is a perfectly timed but surprising concise 38 minute CD.
First the genius acoustic number - one of two - Love and War which traces his own songwriting history distilling his subject matter down to these two themes. It could have been a left-over from After The Goldrush - it is that beautiful and just that fresh - or have been recorded at the same time as Last Trip To Tulsa from his 1969 eponymous debut.
There’s a sublime Tex-Mex tickle in the guitar work - a reference to the current drug wars across the Mexican border perhaps? After three days of solid listening, this song stands as the very best on the record.
Another brilliant tune is Hitchhiker, a song Young has been playing live for two decades. It’s a raw, soul laid bare audit of the drugs that Young has used from smoking hash through a pen growing up in Canada to speed, weed and cocaine (which made his ``head explode’’). The song recalls his paranoia when he wouldn’t appear on TV or sign autographs. It’s more eloquent and honest that anything written from interviews or in the bookcase of biographies released over the years.
The third of the best on Le Noise, Peaceful Valley Boulevard, is a potted history of the world, spun through the environmental disasters that have befallen our planet. It’s the other acoustic number - a compelling seven minute story - and it finishes with a reference to a world summit where leaders fail, obviously a caustic reference to Copenhagen.
This is a classic Young record. It’s subject matter - love, war, the environment, the state of the world and drugs - is the singer’s agenda for all of his 35 years as performer and artist. The music is as cutting edge as anyone gets, producing sounds and taking chances others haven’t even thought of.
Young fans are going to love this and those who don’t really know his work - or think he’s that old guy who sounds like Built To Spill - will find plenty to love. That Young is producing some of his best work so late in his career is as satisfying and enjoyable as it is inspiring.
Le Noise could well be the best record of 2010. It’s as good as it gets.
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