Monday, May 28, 2012

CD Odyssey Disc 403: Neil Young

A weekend in my rear-view mirror, and a short week on the road ahead.  Listening to this next album to and from work and the gym was a fine way to make Monday that much more bearable.

Disc 403 is…Le Noise
Artist: Neil Young

Year of Release: 2010

What’s Up With The Cover?:  I love this cover, mostly because it is evocative of the sound of the record.  Just Neil and his guitar and a flood of light magnifying his presence.  Here is truth in advertising.

How I Came To Know It: By the time this album came out I was already a fan of Young, but in the case of “Le Noise” I remember reading a review of how it was produced, and it intrigued me – enough that I bought it instead of digging further into Neil Young’s back catalogue.

How It Stacks Up:  I have fifteen Neil Young albums, which is only about half his catalogue.  While I love Neil, I don’t know them all that well, having bought many in an explosion of interest, rather than slowly over the years.  This is the occasional downside to buying a lot of music, and another reason to do crazy projects like the CD Odyssey that help you get to know your music better.  All that said, “Le Noise” holds up very well.  I’ll say it is 6th or 7th best.

Rating: 4 stars

What can one man and one guitar accomplish sonically?  Quite a bit if that man is Neil Young, and he’s got Daniel Lanois producing him.

The idea of Daniel Lanois working with Neil Young intrigued me.  I already knew Lanois as a great producer (the man produced three of U2’s greatest records as well as Emmylou Harris’ “Wrecking Ball” and Bob Dylan’s “Oh Mercy”) but with Neil Young inspiring him he takes his talents in a new direction.

On those other records, the Lanois sound is big and atmospheric, filling a room with air, like it is an inflated balloon.  The effect is soft and round at the edges.

On “Le Noise,” Lanois’ penchant for big atmospheric sound is still very present.  In addition he’s taken Neil Young’s longstanding love for reverb and built that into the production to the farthest extreme.  Guitar sound is layered again and again, playing both lead and accompaniment at the same time.  Neil’s already haunting high voice echoes in on itself, sometimes once or twice, and sometimes with words fading forward over an over like an eerie chorus of aging-rocker angels.

It is strikingly beautiful in its strangeness, and yet despite Lanois pushing every envelope, every song is unmistakably Neil Young.  Sometimes the technique is used to augment Young’s “Rockin’ In the Free World” hard rock edge, and sometimes it is applied to his more folksy “Harvest Moon/Prairie Wind” sound of recent years.  It works equally well in both directions.

Young’s guitar playing has a unique tone that is instantly recognizable as him, and Lanois takes great care in never losing this core sound.  Young can play every style with equal skill, and delivers rock, classical, western and on the track  - “Love and War” – even a little flamenco.

Lyrically, this album has a very retrospective quality, which you might expect from a singer/songwriter of Young’s vintage.  Unlike some aging artists though, he has not lost the edgy honesty that makes those lyrics worth listening to.

Some of these songs have broad political and historical contexts.  “Angry World” is a song about the clash of ideologies, classes and religions, yet it holds a core of hope that things will turn out alright.   “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” is a historical recanting of America and the dangers of progress.  Young is never afraid to take a stand, and on “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” he takes his time building his point from early settlers in an actual peaceful valley all the way through to cars on the freeway taking the exit onto Peaceful Valley Boulevard.

Other songs are retrospective in a personal way.  “Hitchhiker” is essentially a retelling of Young’s entire career, from a struggling artist hitchhiking for a ride:

“When I was a hitchhiker on the road,
I had to count on you
But you needed me to ease the load
And for conversation too.”

Recanting his journey he leaves no stone unturned, freely discussing every drug he tried along the way, and every mistake he made.  This is a song – and an album – from an artist that still seeks to find the truth within himself, and still willingly shares his own self-doubt with his audience.  “Hitchhiker” ends with:

“I don’t know how I’m standing here
Living in my life
I’m thankful for my children
And my faithful wife.”

Sometimes Young combines both the personal and political into a combined retrospective journey.  The most haunting and beautiful song on the album, “Love and War” does just this.  Young provides his thoughts on that big subject, but he does so in the context of his own mistakes and ultimately, his own limited perspective:

“I've seen a lot of young men go to war
And leave a lot of young brides waiting
I've watched them try to explain it to their kids
And seen a lot of them failing
They tried to tell them and they tried to explain
Why daddy won't ever come home again.
Daddy won't ever come home again


“The saddest thing in the whole wide world
Is to break the heart of your lover
I made a mistake and I did it again
And we struggled to recover
Then I sang in anger, hit another bad chord
But I still try to sing about love and war.”

The message here is that you shouldn’t be afraid to stand up and speak up for what is right, but to do that effectively you have to face your own failings as well.  Neil Young has never shied away from doing so and the reverberations and echoes on “Le Noise” don’t drown it out, they amplify it.

Best tracks: Love and War, Angry World, Hitchhiker.

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