“I’ve tried to leave my past behind, but it’s catching up with me,” sings Neil Young on “Hitchhiker” off his new album Le Noise. In the song, partially written in 1975, the prophetic Young tells of tumultuous tours in the 1970s where paranoia and heavy drug use fueled his creative fire. Oddly enough, it seems Young has returned to those days once again for inspiration; he’s abandoned the politically-charged acoustic performances of late, in favor of the farsighted “grunge” of the late ’70s. What sets this recent Young apart from the old is quite striking: he’s ditched his band entirely for the solo electric guitar and added one heavy-handed producer in Daniel Lanois.
It’s no coincidence that the title Le Noise is strikingly similar to the producer’s name “Lanois.” The title is in fact a self-proclaimed nickname for the famed producer of Bob Dylan and U2 among others. If anything, it hints to the nature of his and Young’s relationship, which on further inspection seems to be more of an equal artistic partnership than the typical artist-producer collaboration. Le Noise features Young stripped down and raw, most often with his famed electric guitar the Gretsch “White Falcon,” however Lanois’s presence runs quite deep.
Young was recorded live in the producer’s Los Angeles mansion (the sessions are taped and ready for viewing on Young’s YouTube channel), but these simple recordings merely served as raw material for Lanois, who was free to warp at will. “Everything that happened actually happened, but he’ll take pieces of the performance and put them in again and put them in different places,” Young told The New York Times. “He does a performance in the mix, and I do a performance in the performance and it comes together to be what you see and hear.” The result is psychedelic bordering on avant-garde, a musical landscape where time and precision are twisted back unto themselves in storms of modulation and echo.
For the guitar nerds out there, Young’s Gretsch “White Falcon” can be as much of an obsession for us as it is for him. In Young’s life long quest for the perfect sound, he’s reconstructed his favorite guitar with two pick-ups and two outputs, allowing him to plug the guitar into two different amplifiers. This feature enabled Lanois to modify the bass strings separately from the top strings, giving Le Noise its unique distortion and inspiring a new song-writing spree in Young.
Additionally, Le Noise features two acoustic tracks where the duo once again meddled with sonic experimentation. On Lanois’s personally customized Guild Acoustic, Young recorded the tracks “Love and War” and “Peaceful Valley Boulevard.” “It’s not a simple sound,” says Lanois on Young’s Youtube channel. “It’s a very, very multi-layered acoustic sound…[Young] picked up the instrument and it had everything; acoustic sound, it has electronica in it, bass sounds. It was a new sound. We have taken the acoustic guitar to a new level.” After just one listen, it’s clear these claims are far from erroneous.
The two acoustic tracks on the album remind us of why we ever fell in love with Neil Young in the first place. With an added acoustic vibrancy courtesy of Lanois, Young croons the history of the American West, and offers a respite from some of the album’s heavier material, which can become tiresome.
Neil Young is undoubtedly getting older, and as most musicians age they tend follow their fan base and become more conservative and introspective in their creative endeavors. It’s refreshing to see that Young hasn’t fallen into this trap, and continues to push the sonic boundaries of rock ‘n roll. For this, producer Daniel Lanois must not be forgotten; his Los Angeles studio is quickly becoming a bastion of progressive productions. But if easy listening is what you seek, you might want to pass on Le Noise for it certainly requires an open and willing musical palette. “It’s a hard thing to do, on the back of 50 years of rock n’ roll, to come up with a new sound,” says Lanois. “But I think we did it.” Could we ask anymore of our artists?