If there's an artist more stubborn in exploring his every artistic whim than Neil Young, then I'm not sure we're ready for him. Young's contrarian streak as a performer has yielded some of the finest rock records around. But there's also a dark side to it that's given us the vocoder weirdness of 1982's Trans, the rockabilly of 1983's Everybody's Rockin' (which he recorded as a fuck-you to the Geffen suits who demanded a "rock 'n roll record" from him), and most recently 2009's electric-car-obsessed Fork in the Road. Still, the greatest thing about Young's curiosities is that they are usually short-lived, which makes us approach every new album with both excitement (a new sound!) and trepidation (a new sound?).
So what's most interesting about Le Noise is how it bridges the gap between Young's eccentricities as an artist and his intimacy and talent as a songwriter. The record features eight songs (clocking in around 38 minutes) of just Young and his guitar. Each song was recorded live to tape with no overdubs, and Young isn't plugging alternative energy sources or any other overarching concept. Instead, we get the idealist Young taking on big ideas, the heartbroken Young spinning tales of loss, and the reflective Young that shone so brightly on 2005's Prairie Wind.
But then again, the approach to Le Noise isn't as easy as all that. Producer Daniel Lanois, through revamped acoustic guitars and crazy sonics he built into his home recording studio, shaped this album into a thick, buzzing wall of noise. Six songs feature electric guitar, and Young's instrument is absolutely drenched in overdrive, layered through several channels at once, and comes out sounding larger than life. The heavy crunch of the riff on opener "Walk with Me" is jarringly big, and nearly distorts itself into shapelessness, while "Someone's Gonna Rescue You" has a sort of trance-inducing, underwater warble.
Even when Young switches to acoustic guitar, on "Love and War" and "Peaceful Valley Boulevard," there's an unsettling space to it. Chords ring out unnaturally, but Lanois gives the same reverbed space to Young to match the guitar, to make it work. This approach -- these huge, expansive sonic landscapes, these ragged performances -- is a risky one. But in giving him a new context, Lanois does for Young here what he did for Bob Dylan back in 1989. Lanois produced Oh Mercy for Dylan back in 1989, and steered him away from the questionable output of his late-80's records and toward the formula that produced Time Out of Mind. Whether this turns Young down a fruitful path, we don't know, but you can feel Lanois pushing Young with his sonic heft here, and as a result he gets some of the most vital tunes we've heard out of Young in a long while.
Let's not forget, though, that Young has plenty to do with that. All this droning sound wouldn't matter if Young weren't laying down good songs. Some ("Walk With Me" in particular) go for big and end up a bit broad, but mostly these are ambitious and striking songs. "Hitchhiker" might be the best, as it finds Young looking back on his hard-living days as a young musician. He lists his drug use, and his big mistakes (including a repurposing of lyrics from Trans tune "Like an Inca," which is either a hilarious in-joke or a hilarious coincidence), and the song acts as a nice companion piece to the equally excellent "Love and War," which looks back on the career he fit in between the drugs and paranoia.
Throw in his railing on divisive politics on "Angry World" and the laid-bare romantic side of "Sign of Love" and you've got Young playing to all his strengths. So, in some ways, this is a classic Young record. But really, it's only a classic record for diehard Young fans. As good as these songs are, with all its swirling guitar layers, and Young's nasal bleat way up in the mix, cracking and spinning off tune in spots, Le Noise can be a trying record to listen to. It is surely one of those thorny "great" records, one that yields something lasting if you're willing to sit with it, and it is a far more favorable direction than Fork in the Road. But as great as these songs are, how much you love them will rest on how long a leash you're willing to give Young and Lanois with the all ringing, sometimes overbearing, noise they wrap them in.
If you're expecting Le Noise to be one of those latter-day Neil Young albums that's pitched straight across the middle of the plate, a la Prairie Wind, think again. Young has never lost the ability to throw a quirky curveball, and Le Noise is coming more from that direction, hewing closer to the off-kilter approach of, say, Greendale. Produced by Daniel Lanois, it features the Canadian troubadour sans band, but it's a mostly electric affair. Young provided the following tantalizing description of the atmospheres he and his axe created on these tracks: "There's no band, but I got in there with my sonics. There's nothing else out there like it."