Littered about the desert are the remains of man’s missed steps; discarded junk and scattered ideas, slowly being buried under glassy sand. This is where much of Neil Young’s recent output collects rust as the warm winds warp any recognizable signs of triumph. Over there is Are You Passionate?, a glimpse at old rock soul buried under shoddy symbolism and a workman’s heroic utterance. Here lies Living with War, buried alongside those who have sacrificed so much for a country that does nothing more than make their patriotism into political sticking points and bumper stickers. Fork in the Road paid homage to a brand of automobile manufacturing that is long dead, replaced by cheap materials and short life spans. Trans peaks from across the horizon. Everybody’s Rockin’ pollutes the oasis with its slicked hair.
Young has never feared the repercussions of the chances he’s taken. Without them, his journey — as it is in any life — would be incomplete. We are guided by our mistakes, learning to channel failure into future success. It’s how Young has continually bounced back from lambasted albums and sloppily concocted ideas. Fork in the Road, his last album, had a great purpose, but it found Young struggling to put ideas into coherent passages. Le Noise suffers from none of these ills or those that have pocketed his up-and-down career. Apparently working with Daniel Lanois has brought out the best in both men. Here, Young rediscovers his raw energy, battering his guitar through the album’s length with the sporadic vigor of his heyday. Lanois’ “atmospheric touches” play the perfect complement, fleshing out powerful chords and laying low when Young goes contemplative.
No better example exists than in the first notes and lyrics of opening track “Walk with Me.” Young burrows into a repetitive hook, brimming with piss and vinegar, as his words play devil’s advocate to the wall of distortion and noise crafted by Lanois. Young speaks of unconditional love and the antiquated idea of walking as a symbol of trust and unity. This elder marriage is at the heart of the Young/Lanois dynamic, as if Young’s statement of never letting his subject down is a shared sentiment between the producer and the musician. Young continues the mushy talk with follow-up “Sign of Love.” Traditional values of walking and holding hands being time-tested forms of intimacy is not unfamiliar territory, as evidenced by the successes of Silver and Gold. When Young gets romantic and honest — sentiments that ground Le Noise from pillar to post — his work is strong.
“Hitchhiker,” a mythological entry in Young’s live canon, provides Le Noise’s shining example. Lanois keeps his touches light, allowing Young’s ferocious strums and autobiographic tell-all the room it deserves. “Hitchhiker” is painfully open, as Young’s voice reverberates across the width of the kinetic melody. The effect is haunting, as Young raps episodic in five powerful moments. “Hitchhiker” exists as a crystalline example fans use as summation of Young’s long-lasting appeal. He wasn’t gifted with the greatest voice, the best chops, or the wisest words, but from the talents he’s cultivated, he can chill to the bone as he breaks a few necks. “Hitchhiker” is the bleeding-heart confession disguised as unhinged rocker that shall survive as Young’s contribution to modern music.
Buried beneath a host of political and social commentary, fans have been trying to dig up this Neil Young. All it took was a motivated Lanois and the intimacy of solo performance to coax it out of Shakey. Le Noise may not stand among the greatest of Young’s lengthy canon, but it’s been 15 years (Greendale’s “Carmichael” notwithstanding) since this brand of power and emotion has found its way into his work. Chalk it up to Lanois, near-death experiences, or the wisdom of youth. No matter the cause, this is the Neil Young to embrace.