The bringing together of Young's two different musical personalities in his new album is a strange combination but true fans are in for a surprise.
Neil Young - Le Noise
During a career that is now entering its sixth decade, Neil Young has shown himself to be a musician with just two speed settings. There's the pastoral, harmony-drenched folk of his earliest albums such as Harvest, or more recently Prairie Wind, and then there's the surging rock of his Crazy Horse collaborations such as Zuma, or his Bush-baiting polemic Living With War. Although some of the Canadian singer's records have featured a smattering of both styles sitting side-by-side, they've always remained separate, like oil and water. Even many of his recent live shows have been cut into two halves, separated by an interval; folk and rock. And that's what makes his latest album, Le Noise, rather strange.
Produced by Daniel Lanois, best known for his work on U2's The Joshua Tree, the album features Young's vocals with just his guitar as accompaniment - no backing band or overdubs. While it wouldn't be unusual to hear him with only a perfectly tuned acoustic as backing, many of these songs feature the same sort of ferocious, distorted axe-work that earned him the label "the Godfather of Grunge" and yet Crazy Horse's tightly-sprung rhythm section is conspicuously absent. With a clutch of songs that manage to be both nervous and tension-heavy, yet also stripped-down and intimate, the split personalities of Young seem to have finally found some common ground.
The opener Walk With Me burst into life with a hacksaw riff and Young's defiant vocal, proclaiming "I feel a strength, I feel your faith in me / I'll never let you down, no matter what you do". The singer sounds noticeably agitated for the first time in years and it's a feeling that continues through the equally fuzzed-out Signs of Love, in which Lanois (whose name inspired the title Le Noise) seems to have made Young sound like he's slowly drowning.
Love and War provides the record's most recognisable Neil Young moment, in the form of a simple warning about the perils of conflict. But the song lacks impact, and the lyrics "they tried to tell 'em and they tried to explain / Why Daddy won't ever come home again" seem like words that the singer could have written in his sleep, or at any point over the past 40 years. Other than the yearning ballad Peaceful Valley Boulevard, the rest of the album is dominated by distorted guitars and the disjointed verses conjured up by a slightly shaken-sounding Young. The new approach works well on the contemplative Hitcher, but just sounds a mess on the closing track Rumblin'.
Compared with the mature, but perhaps overly contented sounds of much of Young's output over the past two decades, he sounds invigorated and aware on Le Noise, but that doesn't make listening to the album a particularly pleasant experience. Young's vocals can at times be jagged enough to tear holes in furniture, so when tempered by neither a full band nor lilting harmonies, the experience can be a little draining.
Although it's unlikely that anyone other than Young's most devoted fans will give this album the effort it requires, it should still be seen as something of a success: there aren't many 64-year-old artists who are still capable of pulling off a surprise this big more than 30 albums into their solo careers.