Wild Mercury Sound
Neil Young: "Le Noise"
To be honest, a few alarm bells went off when I read this quote. “I wanted [Neil Young] to understand that I’ve spent years dedicated to the sonics in my home and that I wanted to give him something he’d never heard before,” said Daniel Lanois the other week.
“He picked up that instrument, which had everything — an acoustic sound, electronica, bass sounds — and he knew as soon as he played it that we had taken the acoustic guitar to a new level. It’s hard to come up with a new sound at the back end of 50 years of rock and roll, but I think we did it.”
I’ve long been wary of Lanois’ somewhat portentous way of talking about music he’s involved with, and have been generally equivocal about the cushioned echo chambers he often creates for his production clients. As an amused fan of “Fork In The Road”, “Living With War” and “Greendale”, and someone less enamoured with “Prairie Wind”, I tend to think that latterday Neil Young, though always interesting, is at his best when he’s at his rawest and most unfettered, not embarking on a notionally more formatted project with production, studios and so on.
Which I guess is a long-winded way of saying that I feared the worst when word started circulating about his collaboration with Lanois, initially flagged up as “Twisted Road”. Bootlegs of the new songs as performed on the “Twisted Road” tour were strong, sure, but personally, I thought Lanois basically mugged and smothered some of Dylan’s best late-period songs on “Time Out Of Mind”. What would he do here? What did he really consider to be a “new sound”? And wasn’t Neil’s wallowing, splenetic, endlessly capricious old sound radical enough?
Well, it transpires that it mostly was. I can’t really explain the technical preparations that Lanois made before Neil Young picked up the electric and acoustic guitars that are the solitary instruments on “Le Noise”. Mostly, though, he lets them crank and spit and reverberate with a healthy amount of space around them, layering on the delays and effects with relative subtlety. Most importantly, it doesn’t sound as if Lanois has worried the sound to death, as seems to be his habit. Rather, the vituperative spontaneity of Neil’s current schtick comes across strongly: once again, these are songs that flaunt their rough edges, that feel as if he completed them mere moments before recording began.
A solo record, even a predominantly electric one, often leads you to expect a bunch of ballads, but “Le Noise” mainly consists of seething rockers: a couple of songs that figured on the “Twisted Road” tour, “You Never Call” and “Leia”, were reportedly left off the final tracklisting because they’d have made the album top-heavy with ballads. In the end, “Love And War” and “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” were deemed enough.
It’s a good call, and it means that gnarly songs like the opening “Walk With Me” set the tone: an uncommonly angry-sounding love song where the tender words of long-term companionship and love come bagged up in all manner of clank and hiss. Towards the end, just before the noise becomes clipped and processed in a way that’s as reminiscent of a Fennesz record as it is “Dead Man” or “Arc Weld”, you can hear Young howling, “I lost some people I was travelling with.” Suddenly, the motivation becomes clearer: bereavement - the loss of LA Johnson in particular, presumably – has pushed Young to cling to what he has with an even greater fury and intensity.
That sentiment – sentimentality, in a certain light – continues in the tremendous “Sign Of Love”. We’ve talked about this song being kin to “Cinnamon Girl” and “Drive Back”, but what it most reminds me of right now is “Tonight’s The Night”; a comparison which posits “Le Noise” as a sequel of sorts to the Ditch Trilogy, only one where an angry contemplation of mortality has led to a celebration of his marriage.
Young’s vocals sound very first take here, and on the subsequent “Someone’s Gonna Rescue You”, which makes him sound more vulnerable than ever when assailed by the humming hall-of-mirror guitar effects that Lanois has cued up. It all works a treat, though occasionally the sacreligious thought occurs that these – “Sign Of Love” especially – are songs that deserve a straightforward – whatever that is, of course - band treatment rather than an idiosyncratic one.
If “Fork In The Road” felt like a completely spur-of-the-moment dispatch, much of “Le Noise” seems to be a response to a period where he’s been immersed in the Archives. As with “Chrome Dreams II”, there is material that was started and abandoned decades ago – in this case, the wonderful “Hitchhiker”, a vivid autobiography of drug experiences and attendant paranoias that tells his story more directly and articulately than most of his interviews.
As I’m playing “Le Noise” this afternoon, though, I’m beginning to wonder whether “Love And War” might be the best song of the lot: an attempt to understand his creative responses to, well, love and war that calmly unravels in the tradition of “Ambulance Blues” or that Archived solo version of “Last Trip To Tulsa”. Playing “Ambulance Blues”, I think I’d prefer an untreated acoustic sound to Lanois’ comparatively spectral rendering.
But the point is, I guess, that these songs are strong enough to flourish under any circumstances (the mind boggles at what he might do to them next live), and that Lanois’ flourishes are pretty restrained, under the circumstances. The result is a gripping record that, while fairly radical in its approach, and raw in its core performances, should also be Young’s most successful in a while. For those of us who enjoy his wanderings and digressions, it works great. For those of you who got fed up with all the mucking about a while back, it might well prove to be a way back into the fold.