After I first saw Neil live in 2009, my obsession with the man and his music has grown bigger and bigger over the past few months, ever more so since I started reading Shakey. More than anything, I've always thought of Ol' Neil as a 'larger than life' character, much like Cash and Dylan. And I love his music so much that I even 'hate' him for doing the stuff he did in the past, like abandoning Crazy Horse many a time, and also doing weird stuff back in the 80's that now might seem trivial.
Neil's musical output in the past 15 to 20 years still proves that he's as prolific and versatile and unpredictable as ever. The downside is that we've not really heard anything that can stand with his work from the 70's, well maybe except for Ragged Glory or even Harvest Moon. 1995's Mirrorball was a nice surprise, considering Neil's enlisting Pearl Jam to be his back-up band. And I actually enjoyed the records he did with the Horse, Sleeps With Angels and Broken Arrow. Moving on to the 2000's, Are You Passionate? was an average album that had about two or three great songs. Out of all the albums he's made since then (Greendale, Living With War, Chrome Dreams II, Fork In The Road), I've only enjoyed Prairie Wind.
So I'll just say it outright that 2010's Le Noise is his greatest record in twenty years. It's his first REAL solo effort, and a real special one too; it's nothing like what I've heard before. And it's pretty obvious from the get-go. If this was made twenty years ago, it would've been considered innovative or even revolutionary. In this day and age, I'm convinced that it's hard to come up with a truly original/innovative piece of music. Well, Le Noise has proved me wrong, and only producer Daniel Lanois could do something like this. Don't worry -- it's not weird in a Trans sorta way.
It's a dream collaboration - Lanois and Young. It's simple really -- 8 mostly short songs. One voice, one guitar. Though the sound itself is anything but. On each song, Neil's voice and guitar are laden with all sorts of weird effects, plenty of reverb, echos, delays and loops. It's all done in Lanois' house. There's sounds coming to you at different directions so that a binaural and almost 3D-like effect is achieved. Imagine what the experience will be like when listened on a good pair of headphones or on blu-ray. Besides two acoustic tracks, the rest of the album is heavy with distortion from Neil's Old Black and White Falcon Gretsch. In fact, it's not hard to picture him playing some of these songs with the Horse on stage. You'll hear as if there are many guitars being strummed at the same time, but in reality, there's only one, and best of all, there are no overdubs. It's all done live. Surprisingly it doesn't sound too overproduced as it is raw. The result is a fucking sonically mindblowing record.
Le Noise is a strong album lyrically, with plenty of images about love, loss and redemption. You can always trust Neil to deliver the most heartfelt and honest words. Walk With Me opens with a hair-raising power chord, and the recent deaths of close friends Larry Johnson and Ben Keith has Neil singing towards the end of the song "I lost some people I was traveling with".
Love And War is easily as devastating as a song like Dylan's Masters Of War. With Spanish-influenced guitar playing, Neil sings it like he fucking means it, and there's nothing pretentious about the lyrics, unlike the many 'anti-war' songs we've heard over the past few years. And it probably has one of the all-time great opening lines in any Neil Young tune: "When I sing about love & war, I don't really know what I'm saying". Angry World was actually the first song I heard from the album -- it changed my outlook on how sound can be used in the most creative of ways. In this case, Lanois used a little voice loop as a sorta downbeat for the song. It's real subtle but effective. And halfway through the song comes about thirty seconds of one of the most beautiful chord progressions I've ever heard. But if you listen carefully, you'll notice that Neil fucks up the timing a bit. That's greatness right there.
The track I was most excited about was Hitchhiker. Yes it's the very same one that Neil started writing back in the 70's. It has gone through several lyrical treatments, but whatever it is, it's totally autobiographical. Here he sings about different stages of his life where he was trying out different drugs. He finally adds a new verse about finding peace in family. But just when you think you've heard it all, then comes Peace Valley Boulevard, an eerily sublime acoustic number about how America has evolved over the past hundred years. Neil never ceases to amaze me.
Le Noise is absolution perfection. Remember this.
P.S. Check out the Neil Young channel at youtube for some cool videos from the album.