These days fewer and fewer artists seem to actually have something to say, and of those that do, not many are saying something worth hearing. Pop has never been so pop. But what to do when we, the all-consuming music-buying public, want to hear something tangible? Something personal. Something that makes a statement – and no, not a fashion statement…we have plenty enough of that already. Something real. It’s a mission to find a contemporary artist whose music really has a voice and that thing called soul – there are some of course, but most of them are hiding away in obscurity and poverty, far removed from the sales charts. Leave it to the epitomist Neil Young to come along with a new album that delivers something that is both very real and very much worth listening to.
Neil Young is of course a bit of an old dog, but one who has spent this whole career making music that is full of life. The life that Neil Young sings about is not idyllic and the soliloquy that has been spoken throughout his career is as dark as it is colourful: but it also firmly his own. Young has always done his own thing.
With Le Noise, Neil Young is reflective as ever. As he approaches his 65th birthday this November he is now becoming the “Old Man” that he once sung about 40 years ago. The old man that became immortalized in that song from 1972’s Harvest was a caretaker who, together with his wife, lived on the ranch in California that Young had purchased as a “rich hippie”. The hippie still lives on his ranch but has now become the old man, and with “Sign Of Love” Young sings about being ‘out on the land’ and ‘silver-haired’ while walking hand in hand with his love. Elsewhere “Love And War” continues the earnest and reflective tone of the album, and is autobiographical with it’s lyrics re-counting the songwriter’s own stands about love and war. The tone is sombre, even perplexed: It’s a far cry from the buoyant and defiant cries of his 1989 hit “Rockin’ In The Free World” – a rousing karaoke ballad, it is not. Songs don’t come much more autobiographical than “The Hitchhiker” – a song which for 5 mins 32 seconds sees Young recount his life and career with a simple but intimate dialogue.
There’s nothing rock and roll about any of the dialogue throughout Le Noise, in fact it’s pretty much an anti-rock and anti-pop album: there’s no gusto, excess or wild dreams here, just an aging icon reflecting on the past and revealing himself to be as mortal as any of us. While the songs are personal, and even autobiographical, the subject matter is relatable. It’s very easy to listen to this and find yourself immersed in the music and building your own connections to the subject matter. As an example, on first listen I had this on my ipod with shuffle selected: the first songs played were “Someone’s Going To Rescue You”, “Rumblin'” and “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” – that trio had a striking impact on me, given my own personal scenario as a new resident to Canada who had just left a meeting with a person who had given me guidance. And as I travelled on a downtown street car the ‘rumbling’ and the keywords of ‘Toronto’ and ‘electric car’ provided just some of the ingredients for an uncanny little musical trip. (I’m sure many Torotonians and Canadians will appreciate the couple of mentions to T-dot that Young makes in Le Noise.) The music can both immerse and inspire and it’s very easy to find yourself plugged-in and creating your own imagery to match the music.
Deep connections can be made throughout Young’s audio travelogue: you don’t need to be an immigrant or a traveller to be able to relate to the metaphors of searching for something better and finding greener pastures, or likewise to the reflective vibe of appreciating what you’ve got and learning to heal.
The straightforward approach to the lyrics is matched by the musicianship as well as the production. This is a solo album as it is just the man with his guitar but producer Daniel Lanois is deserving of the credit given to him with the pun in the album’s title (Le Noise/Lenois – get it?). The vocals and guitar sound raw and are captured brilliantly, and when played at ample volume it sounds like a live recording. Plenty of reverb and echo have been added throughout the album, and you really do need to raise the volume switch high to get the most out of Le Noise as there are plenty of other sonic nuances that bleed in through the background. The album’s cover of the silhouetted songwriter with his guitar is as appropriate as the album’s title – what you have here is a musician, his instrument and his producer all in one room and that’s what you hear on record.
Ultimately, it’s the simplicity of it all that reaches you. If you want something real then get this. Le Noise is as reverberating sonically as it is lyrically. The anti-pop star has created his ultimate anti-pop record.
© Brian Banks, Editor, Music Vice