Le Noise is Neil Young with eight new songs and no band, accompanying himself on guitars with maximum fuzz and electronics, manipulated by producer Daniel Lanois. The result is one of Young’s weirdest studio records — and that’s saying something in a decade that includes the eco-opera Greendale and the chunky-rock songs about alternative fuel on Fork in the Road.
Le Noise is also the most intimate and natural-sounding album Young has made in a long time: just a songwriter making his way through a vividly rendered chaos of memoir, affection and fear. It’s as if you hear the songs on the verge of creation, the way Young first hears rhyme and noise in his head. On his current tour, where Young has played most of these songs, you can buy a T-shirt that reads “I Said Solo… They Said Acoustic.” Even with Lanois thickening and fucking with the atmospheres, Le Noise is as solo as it gets.
That is not obvious at first. “Walk With Me” opens with arguing layers of iron jangle that sound like they barged in from Metallica’s Death Magnetic. The last minute is muddy-guitar drone and beeping sound effects, like bits of Young’s 1982 hippie-Kraftwerk fling, Trans, dropped into one of the Crazy Horse-freakout codas on 1991’s Weld. But earlier in the song, Young sings with chantlike force — “I feel your love/I feel your strong love/I feel the patience of unconditional love” — like he’s testing variations on his theme. Then he gets specific: “I lost some people I was traveling with/I miss the soul and the old friendship.” His voice is receding into the drone, but recent passings — like those of his friends and collaborators Larry “L.A.” Johnson and Ben Keith — cut through the din like heartbreak.
The reflection is strong here. The riff in “Sign of Love” has the repetitive charge of “Cinnamon Girl”; there’s some “Mr. Soul” in the guitar hook of “Someone’s Gonna Rescue You”; “Hitchhiker” is in the tradition of extended parables like “Crime in the City” — images of a life unraveling and repaired that, at points, may be Young’s (“Then came paranoia, and it ran away with me”).
But the most personal thing about Le Noise is the sense of a restless master caught in the pursuit of ideas, shaping their expression. “Peaceful Valley Boulevard,” one of two acoustic-guitar songs, is a detailed American history lesson from Indian wars to electric cars. Yet in one line (“A mother screamed, and every soul was lost”), Young’s voice cracks on the peak note — an impulsive, moving flaw.
And in “Love and War,” Young — his creaky whisper and acoustic guitar buoyed by Lanois’ watery treatments — confesses an uncertainty hard to believe in one of rock’s most driven stars: “When I sing about love and war/I don’t really know what I’m saying.” But then the conviction comes back. He only has that one way forward, through the music: “I sang in anger, hit another bad chord/But I still try to sing about love and war.” Le Noise is, ultimately, an extreme simplicity: the sound of a man who won’t give up.