If Sleeps With Angels — Neil Young’s 1994 reaction to the death of Seattle grunge-rock icon Kurt Cobain — has been called the sequel to his dark masterpiece Tonight’s The Night, you could just as easily label Le Noise an extension of past work ranging from 1983’s Trans to 2005’s Prairie Wind.
To do so however, would also be to sell it way too short. Le Noise is in fact the boldest sounding, most artistically challenging record Neil Young has made in a decade or more. It is also easily his best album in at least that long. As is so often the case with Neil Young, time will probably tell. But on an initial listen, Le Noise has the feel of a classic.
This is also an album that is best played very loud on a stereo system with a pair of speakers that can take it (and preferably somewhere where you won’t piss off the neighbors). Forget the iPod and the earbuds. There is simply no other way to properly experience the way producer Daniel Lanois has added multiple sonic dimensions to Neil’s guitar the way he does on Le Noise, then played at maximum volume. This sucker needs to be turned up way loud.
Comparisons to the infamous syntho-pop of Trans are probably inevitable though. Producer Daniel Lanois’ electronic treatments of Neil Young’s massively cranked, white electric Gretsch guitar manifest themselves nearly as often in the whirring and clicking noises heard at the end of “Walk With Me” as they do in the deep humming, speaker rattling feedback of “The Hitchhiker.” On the latter, Neil even manages to sneak in a line from “Like An Inca” — a song from, you guessed it, Trans.
The eight songs on Le Noise also find Neil Young at his most lyrically personal and introspective since Prairie Wind. On the aforementioned “Walk With Me” and “Hitchhiker,” as well as on “Sign Of Love” and “Love And War,” Neil Young reflects back on his life — and even questions some of his past decisions and behavior — before seeming to finally find a tentative sort of peace within himself.
The most obvious and fascinating example of this is “The Hitchhiker.” Set against a howling backdrop of fuzzed-out power chords and feedback, Neil recites a personal history here that reads like the darkest, most forbidden entries from a personal diary. Although “The Hitchhiker” is a song dating back to the Harvest Moon era, it still fits the overall mood of Le Noise perfectly.
On this remarkable, nakedly autobiographical song, Neil Young lists every drug he’s ever taken, name checks both Toronto and California, and even briefly revisits his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress (“then we had a kid and we split apart, and I was living on the road, and a little cocaine went a long, long way to ease that heavy load”).
Neil even confronts his early stardom in a way those most familiar with his history will instantly recognize (“then came paranoia and it ran away with me, I would not sign an autograph or appear on TV”). Following this five minutes of confession time, Neil ends by simply stating “I don’t know how I’m standing here, living my life, I’m thankful for my children and my faithful wife.”
“Sign Of Love” is another song where Neil expresses his feelings for Pegi (“when were just walking and holding hands, you can take it as a sign of love”). Neil also sneaks in a rather sweet nod to “Cinnamon Girl” here. During the line “when the music played, I watched you dance,” you’ll probably find yourself anticipating the power chords of that particular classic just as much I did.
In the same way that Lanois’ sonic treatments of Young’s blasting electric power chords add stunning new dimensions to that side of his sound (even without Crazy Horse or any eighteen minute guitar solos), the two acoustic songs here serve as a reminder of just how good Neil can be with the amps turned back down.
On both “Love And War” and “Peaceful Valley Boulevard,” Lanois’ recording brings out the deeper, darker bass tones as well as the lighter, more finessed flamenco tones of Young’s acoustic guitar playing in a way you’ve never quite heard before.
Even so, Lanois’ electronic “treatments” on the acoustic songs are another reason this album needs to be played extremely loud. On first listen, I found myself being jerked out of my seat wondering just what those odd noises I was hearing were. At one point, I even thought one of the neighbor cats was scratching on my window. The closest thing I could compare it to is the crackling fire heard on “Will To Love” from the American Stars And Bars album. Needless to say, these sonic treatments are about as organically real sounding as it gets.
Of the two acoustic songs, “Love And War” is the more politically themed — although the anti-war sentiments expressed here are much lighter in tone than the bludgeoning over the head of Neil Young’s 2006 “folk-metal-protest” firecracker Living With War. As with “The Hitchhiker,” Young also waxes both autobiographical (“I sang songs about war since the backstreets of Toronto”) and even regretful (“I sang about justice and I hit a bad chord, but I still try to sing about love and war”).
“Peaceful Valley Boulevard” on the other hand is much more broad in its subject matter. In the same way that “The Hitchhiker” plays like a glimpse into Neil Young’s personal journal, “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” is filled with the sort of cinematic, historically minded imagery Neil Young is simply unmatched at.
From scenes where “shots rang out” and “the bullets hit the bison from the train” in a Wild West Kansas City, to more modern images where an “electro cruiser coasted towards the exit, and turned on Peaceful Valley Boulevard,” the common thread between mining for gold and oil is God’s tears thundering down like rain.
Just when you least expected it, Neil Young has delivered a masterpiece with Le Noise. Again.