Neil Young has long had a talent for writing lyrics that are elusive yet compelling. Although many of the lines in “Tell Me Why” from After the Gold Rush elude me, that doesn’t make it less powerful—and when he sings “I am lonely but you can free me/All in the way that you smile” the sudden clarity has all the more impact. Lyrically his new release, Le Noise, is so straightforward it may catch you off guard. This is a time for reckoning, for looking back without flinching, for admitting mistakes and for hanging on to what’s left. With music this personal, it makes sense that Neil recorded his first studio album that’s completely solo: it’s just him and a guitar.
Le Noise isn’t, however, a “return to his folk roots”—far from it, actually. With the exception of two cuts Neil uses an electric guitar, and by the time he’s run through “Walk With Me,” “Sign of Love,” and “Someone’s Gonna Rescue You,” it’s clear he wants to make a lot of (le) noise. Never mind that these opening songs are about love and relationships and the lyrics often unabashedly romantic; this is a rock and roll album with a huge, symphonic sound, all from one guitar and one voice. Daniel Lanois, who’s worked with U2, Bob Dylan, and Peter Gabriel, produced the record, and at times Neil sounds like he’s not in Lanois’ studio but in a coliseum. On these and the other electric songs Neil’s attack and the layered and expansive sound of his guitar are compelling—especially impressive on the 180-gram vinyl version of Le Noise. The vocals are a different matter, however. The heavy reverb and delay often seem excessive. They also seem like a distraction to Neil, who sometimes seems overly seduced by the wall of sound he and Lanois create.
There are two acoustic guitar cuts on the record. “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” casts a dark eye on America’s past and future— but the melody and the guitar playing are gorgeous. On this cut, though, the vocal treatment seems especially inappropriate. It’s one thing to electronically alter the vocals over an electric backdrop, but why over an acoustic one? The vocals sound more natural on the other acoustic track, the Spanish-tinged “Love and War,” one of the highlights of the record. Again the guitar work is memorable, with a warm sound that shines on vinyl.
The trippy vocal treatment is most effective on a detailed account of Neil’s drug use over the years. The strongest cut on the album, “The Hitchhiker,” may also be the most depressing—and if the worst is over, anxiety remains: “Many years have come and gone like friends and enemies/I tried to leave my past behind but it’s catching up with me/I don’t know how I’m standing here, living in my life/I’m thankful for my children, and my faithful wife.” Although I have issues with the sound, that sense of honesty and vulnerability helps make Le Noise a return to form for a major if inconsistent artist.