As anyone who has ever been more involved in music that sniping from the sidelines will know it takes a certain amount of courage to walk up to the mic stand alone, whether you layer the result in effects or not. But then Neil Young, no matter what else you may think of him, has always been an artist unafraid to take risks. Whether you think of him yelling at the tree-hugging hippies of the seventies desperately trying to galvanize them into action, scoring the oddball Jim Jamarsch movie ‘dead man’ almost entirely with feedback and atmospherics, employing Pearl Jam as the world’s most well-known backing band or going totally off the rails for the Geffen-contract-wrecking ‘Trans’, the man has been nothing if not delightfully entertaining over his lengthy career even while only the most die-hard fan would try to claim that all his works are worthy of his name.
However, despite what the critics might have you believe, the last decade was certainly a strong one for Neil. ‘Chrome Dreams II’ (a sequel to an album that was never made), ‘Living with War’, ‘Greendale’ and ‘road rock Vol 1’ (a live album) were all hugely enjoyable while ‘Silver and Gold’ and ‘prairie wind’ were strong acoustic outings that lacked the punch of ‘Freedom’ but which still had their moments of classic Young beauty. ‘Le Noise’ thus closes out the decade in fine style and sees Neil doing what he does best, namely confounding his fans (and his detractors) expectations to do things his way and it works all too well.
At 39 minutes ‘Le noise’ is a brief affair, but given the densely sounds contained within that’s probably a good thing. On offer are eight tracks of varying vintage (much like ‘Chrome dreams II’. Young has once again plundered his unreleased back catalogue for inspiration) that rattle out of the speakers with a raw energy that few singer/songwriters could match. Opening gambit ‘walk with me’ is a prime example. Branded by one critic as ‘unlistenable’ it swells out of a miasma of pure Young guitar – that same wonderful tone that set hairs on the back of the neck a-tingling on ‘ordinary people’ – before Young’s feline howl breaks the static and the electric sparks flying are unmistakable; this is Young in top, confrontational form and the fact that this is just one man and a guitar is all too easily forgotten thanks to clever use of effects and Young’s electric, attention grabbing performance. His guitar howls, roars and spits while the man himself sings better than ever, perhaps aware that shorn of a backing band he can’t afford to slack off on the vocal front. As the track fades off into a wall of ear-drum damaging feedback it’s hard not to rejoice that the Neil Young who doused listeners in thirty minutes of feedback with ‘Arc’ is standing front and centre with a malicious grin on his face and a glint in his eye. And that’s only the first track. ‘Sign of love’ is rather more traditional in outlook, recalling the wounded howl of ‘Tonight’s the night’ via the grizzled distortion of ‘Sleeps with angels’ and once again you’re left in awe that one man can make so much noise. ‘Someone gonna rescue you’ is another gem with an insistent melody and the effects rack of famed producer Daniel Lanois allowing Young’s guitar to sound somewhere between an instrument of raging rock and a pump organ allowing a rhythmic sensibility to seep in despite the complete absence of percussion of any kind.
Having scared off its detractors with a consistent barrage of distorted guitar the album shifts gear to the acoustic beauty of ‘Love and war’ which stands as a lament that seems to be largely about Young’s own career as a musician and political commentator. It’s one of his finest works both emotionally and musically and in one song he captures everything that he wanted to say on the ‘living with war’ album in a truly elegant five and a half minutes. “Angry world” underlines its theme with one of the heaviest riffs Young has ever written while his voice echoes around the spaces where a band would normally be. The effect is slightly unsettling, while the droning feedback that closes the song is pure Sonic Youth – a notion that Young would undoubtedly take as a compliment. ‘Hitchhiker’ is better still – a wonderful track that recalls the electric lament of ‘hey hey, my my (into the black) with a chorus that rages with a white hot intensity while Young revisits the piles of drugs that have popped up over the course of his lengthy career.
A second acoustic track ‘Peaceville valley Boulevard’ offers up another glimpse of the beauty that Neil Young is so capable of delivering and here, standing in contrast to some of his noisiest material in an age, it shines all the brighter. Beautifully played and utterly naked, it can be heavy going but rewarding nonetheless and a true testament to the man’s skill. Final track ‘Rumbling’ is a real oddity with all sorts of strange effects building the introduction before a guitar that is distorted to the point of destroying the speaker-cone slithers out and Neil Young’s most self-lacerating lyric cries out from the darkness “when will I learn how to give back?”It’s a fitting end to an album that is arguably one of Neil’s most human endeavours and despite the Pink Floyd bothering array of effects used to mask the emotional undercurrent racing through this release the overwhelming feeling is that you’ve spent forty minutes in the company of the real Neil Young – torn by self doubt and yet propped up by a belief in his music and his politics, born of a desire to rock and yet fragile and vulnerable –all those aspects can be found here on this challenging and starkly beautiful release.
Ultimately this will not attract newcomers to Neil Young’s oeuvre – there are too many other records better suited to that task and ‘Le noise’ is a dense, nervy piece. However, for fans who have stuck by Neil over the years this is a triumphant record that sees the man’s most human side laid bare even while his trusty guitar rages with a fire and intensity that the decade’s other fine releases didn’t quite succeed in matching. It’s difficult – for sure, but then who ever said great art had to be easy? A triumph for an artist who consistently divides opinion.