Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Knocked Out Loaded: Neil Young’s Le Noise

Neil Young’s Le Noise is a centered, focused and authentic recording designed to both inspire and knock you on the head. Young has also knocked himself on the head. Le Noise features the kind of raw ambience that he hasn’t achieved since Ragged Glory (1990). And he’s served it up with some serious lyrical content. Young has had a career of tripping up his muse to continually stir up his creativity. In fact, looking over his long body of work, he’s spent decades shifting both his and our expectations of where he would go next. Freedom (1989), which contained electric and acoustic versions of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” dipped into a variety of musical styles. That album led unexpectantly to the quietly conceived best selling Harvest Moon three years later. Next, he rocked out with the members of Pearl Jam on Mirror Ball in 1995 before following that with the under-recognized country/roots record Silver & Gold (2000). Five years later, he returned with the beautifully rendered and reflective Prairie Wind.

Le Noise is produced by Daniel Lanois and it’s unlike anything Young has done before. It’s a simple recording: Young is either in a chair, or standing, with his guitar singing into a microphone. In fact, all Young wanted to do was record the eight songs and leave the mixing and post-production to Lanois. Clearly, the two trusted each other in spite of the fact that they had never worked together before. Lanois, assisted by technician Mark Howard, came up with a device that separated the six strings of the guitar [3-low 3-high] and allowed them to adjust the sound of the instrument. What you hear is an off the floor recording with the feel of a band inside the music, a solid testament to Neil Young as a guitarist. This record truly rocks, especially on a few songs, but its title is anything but noise.

Producer Daniel Lanois
Neil Young is sonically lifted by Lanois (as was Bob Dylan on Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind). In Lanois' world, the singer is at the center of the music and the record is full of inspired surprises and shifting audio textures. According to Lanois, in an interview with Jian Ghomeshi of CBC Radio, he's always wanted to record and produce a Neil Young album and he finally got the chance when Young called him last June. Eight songs were in the can until Lanois suffered injuries in a near-fatal motorcycle accident. But, according to Lanois, he had the time to finish it while recovering at his home in Los Angeles. So what we have is a record of thoughtful consideration on both Lanois' and Young's part; the combination of their talent is at times, simply astonishing.

The first song, “Walk with Me,” gets right to the point, a love song to his muse ("I feel your love/ I feel the patience of unconditional love/I feel your strength I feel your faith in me/I'll never let you down no matter what you do...I'm on this journey, I don't want to walk alone...walk with me.") The second song, "Sign of Love," is the heaviest of the metal sounding production colour by Lanois. It truly kicks because of Young's commitment to the vocal and his catchy guitar chords. This track, tinted by Lanois' soundscapes, is in the typical Neil Young fashion like “Cortez the Killer” or “When You Dance I Can Really Love.”

“Angry World” reflects current events, much like Young's subversive anthem, “Rockin' in the Free World.” This could be considered the sequel to that song but without the angst. Yet it carries the quiet rage of seeing history repeat itself. Apparently, a fisherman friend said to Young, after a tough day on the ocean, “Neil, it’s an angry world can you write a song about it?” It could be tiring work for the singer/songwriter to be writing about the world in 2010, much like it was in 1970 when Young wrote his anthem, “Ohio,” about the shootings at Kent State. But, as Young said in the CBC interview, he’s not sure if the world is angrier today than it was 30 years ago. [www.cbc.ca/q] Young went on to explain his anger, or more accurately, his controlled rage about the state of the “planet.” This very notion comes home on the skeptical, yet hopeful, “Peaceful Valley Boulevard,” as stunning an indictment of political inertia and human suffering if there ever was one. It's one of Young's best-written and performed songs.

“Love and War” is a beautiful ballad featuring Young with an acoustic guitar. His voice is upfront in the mix as he tells the story of himself, as a singer-songwriter and the number of times he's sung about love and war going back to the coffee houses of Toronto. On this track, Lanois lays off the sonics to capture a more direct and sincere performance. “Hitchhiker” could be considered an autobiographical song because Young tells the story of his life as he cites every drug he's taken from smoking hashish in Toronto to dropping Valium in California due to the stress of his success. Like most of Young’s songs, he wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s not interested in hiding behind a mask and creating anything mysterious which is one reason why I enjoy his music: he’s free of pretension. “When will I learn how to give back?" Young sings on the last song "Rumblin'." Like the opening track, this song is directed at his muse in appreciation for his “gift.”

For me, Neil Young's songs are gifts. His spontaneous approach of getting into the studio to record them at the right time - for better or worse - is essentially the Neil Young story in a nutshell; an artist whose output has been uneven to say the least, but one who is always present, immediate and heartfelt. Le Noise is Young's strongest record in the past 10 years. With the help of Daniel Lanois, he's once again tapped into the unpredictable sources of his genius and released, dare I say it, the best album of the year.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.

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