Le Noise is the most recent of Neil Young’s 34 solo albums. Yep, this is his 34th — and that isn’t even including his material with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Damn. This guy is also 64 years old, though one would never know that from his live shows, where he rocks harder than 99 percent of our current crop of rock’n’rollers. Not to mention he has influenced basically every respectable modern guitar-savvy band today (we’re looking at you, Built to Spill and Wilco). So what does this veteran have left to prove? Isn’t he cool enough already?
Le Noise is simply Neil and his guitar. To add a little mystique, he recorded only during a full moon. The name Le Noise is a tongue-in-cheek nod to Young’s famous brainchild producer, Daniel Lanois (U2, Bob Dylan). Recording took place entirely at the producer’s home studio, where he laid down the underlying space-scape sonics that permeate the entire album, filling the traditional songs with odd echoes and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-esque white noise.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Young described his guitar’s tone on Le Noise as sounding “like God.” And he’s correct. This behemoth of a tone could easily level a building. “Sign of Love” treats listeners to the chunkiest guitar sound Young has used since “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)” — a sound so deep and thundering that you can practically feel it, like a bass in your stomach.
Young’s trademark plodding rhythm and palm-muting strum style is present throughout the record. He also busted out the big gun to record the majority of tracks: his trademark Gretsch White Falcon, the Bentley of guitars, quite possibly the most ostentatiously stunning instrument (visually and aurally) in his collection.
The theme of loss hangs heavy on Le Noise . Young is getting older, and recently lost two of his closest colleagues, one being his band’s steel guitarist and close friend, Ben Keith. On opener “Walk with Me,” despite a kick-ass guitar riff and optimistic “oohs” and “aahs” in the middle-eight, Young takes on a more melancholy disposition: “I lost some people I was traveling with / I missed a soul in the old friendship.”
But fans looking for the simple lyrical genius and poetic beauty of the songs circa Rust Never Sleeps or After the Goldrush will have to look elsewhere. The lyrics in Le Noise , while straightforward, are often bland and overly sentimental. A prime example is from acoustic ballad “Love and War”: “The saddest thing in the whole wide world / Is to break the heart of your lover.” Not exactly world-shaking stuff, but hey, Young’s allowed to get a little soft in his old age. Nevertheless, the echo-y Spanish-style acoustic finger-picking saves the song.
Le Noise proves that Neil Young is relevant in the year 2010 and showcases his boldness and risk-taking. On the other hand, as much as Young continues to evolve and try new sounds, this is not an album that fans will think to revisit after the initial few listens. Le Noise really is just another arguably failed grand experiment from an artist who had a prime so enduring and so expansive that few things ever measure up. The songs on the album are almost too personal to relate to, and contain little actual enjoyment in the song craftsmanship. It is easy to become absorbed in the musical intrigue of the sonics created by Lanois that you forget that the songs themselves, when absent from modern tweaking, are simply average. Young is still cool, but not cool enough to rescue this peculiar record from gathering figurative dust in your iTunes library.