Neil Young never stops working. While many artists of his age and stature still tour regularly, new studio albums are few and far between. Maybe they’ve grown tired of the lukewarm response their new material receives when they attempt to wedge it into a standard greatest hits set. Or perhaps they have truly lost the drive and energy to write and record new songs. But here he is about to embark on his sixth (!) decade as a recording artist and he’s never slowed down. He released seven albums of new material in the ‘00s. By comparison Bob Dylan released three, the Rolling Stones and The Who one each and … hell, I guess you run out of contemporaries pretty quickly (recently, Eric Clapton and Van Morrison are just as likely to cover other writers’ material than compose their own).
This is not to suggest that quantity somehow trumps quality. You’d be hard pressed to find a bigger fan (and I’d bet my Archives Vol. 1 Blu-ray collection on that), but when push comes to shove, I’ll admit that he hasn’t released a truly great record since Sleeps with Angels in 1994. Now, there’s only one out-and-out dud in the ten he’s released since then (2002’s well-intentioned but musically lame Are You Passionate?). But by and large, each new LP features a small handful of gems surrounded by a lot of half baked ideas and ill conceived concepts. You sense his excitement behind each new idea, whether it be melding a choir to a collection of grungy protest songs (Living with War) or writing an environmental rock opera (Greendale), or several odes to his electric Lincoln Continental (Fork in the Road), but often the ideas are less than worked through and he loses steam well before the end.
Which brings us to Le Noise, or “What’s Going On in Neil’s Head Circa 2010.” Much has been made of Daniel Lanois presence as producer. I’ve never been much of a fan -- his ‘atmospherics’ or ‘sonics,’ or whatever the hell he wants to call them, frequently obfuscate the material he’s working on (Bob Dylan and U2 are both better off without him). But here, his touches seem to be limited to the copious addition of reverb and the occasional looped sample. Maybe it’s because he has physically less to work with; these songs feature Neil and his guitar and nothing more. Not to say that this is an acoustic record. Some of these songs rage as good as anything he’s done since Crazy Horse’s last truly raucous moments on Ragged Glory. I can’t help but hear a thundering rhythm section in my head on tracks like “Walk with Me” and “Hitchhiker," but I appreciate his desire to leave these songs room to breathe.
The sparse arrangements leave us with the songs themselves and Le Noise, simply put, has a better batting average than any Neil record in a long stretch. The melodies stick around a little longer, the lyrics are more focused, and his singing is passionate and nuanced. There’s a lot of reflection on age and loss. Neil lost two dear friends and collaborators this year with the passing of Larry Johnson and Ben Keith, and their memory haunts the record, as well as Neil’s subtle acknowledgement that his time is growing shorter as well. And then there’s the aforementioned “Hitchhiker.” Originally performed on tour in 1992 and sporadically ever since, this is the first time it has appeared on record. It is a frank and honest accounting of Neil’s history with drugs, from hash to speed to pot to coke. But it’s a catalog, not an apology. He ties them to moments in his life -- moving to America, divorcing Carrie Snodgrass, incessant touring in the mid-‘70s. You sense he’s trying to work through the attraction and the song is better for leaving the question unanswered.
At 64, he’s older but he’s not conceding any wisdom. This is a man still working things out, still questioning his actions, and still reaching for something just outside his grasp. May he never get where he’s trying to go. The trip itself is much more interesting for the rest of us. (Reprise Records)