There’s a certain section of the music press for whom – how shall we say – ‘heritage acts’ tend to be regarded with unblinking reverence, their every new direction being greeted as a triumph or indeed a masterpiece. Most of us younger types have learned to take this with a pinch of salt, and so the rave reviews that have greeted Neil Young’s new release will probably have been met with cagey suspicion – while there’s no doubting his massive influence and his maverick insistence on doing the unexpected, a considerable number of his 33 studio albums could reasonably be described as erratic, or at best flawed.
Le Noise sees him team up with super-producer Daniel Lanois – hence the album’s regrettable title – for an album that’s dominated by guitar texture: with no rhythm section or band, it’s pretty much just Young coaxing out heavy, sludgy riffs, aided and abetted by reverbed production and overlaid by his distinctive vocals. Think more along the lines of Arc than Harvest, although that oversimplification ignores the presence here of a couple of contemplative acoustic ballads that break things up nicely.
Young’s distinctive guitarwork was always one of his most notable qualities, with the violent, staccato fretwork of classic albums like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Rust Never Sleeps the anthithesis of indulgent, overly-technical noodling: his inimitable style and his manipulation of feedback became a key influence for bands like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr and Nirvana. Le Noise sees him re-embrace the instrument, with tracks like ‘Sign of Love’ and ‘Angry World’ characterised by full, enveloping textures. It’s among the heaviest guitar playing of Young’s career, yet paradoxically the overall effect is light and airy, with the lack of other instruments lending these compositions a certain ambience: the echoes and effects that emanate from Young’s axework paint strange, distorted pictures.
Overall, Le Noise is more about atmosphere than tunes: how you respond to it will depend on your willingness to embrace its impressionistic tones. There’s certainly enough nuance, detail and self-aware lyrical references for Young’s fanbase to eagerly lap up. The more neutral listener, on the other hand, may wonder if the aesthetic approach sustains itself over the course of an album, while some of the couplets can be a tad clunky. Either way, Young continues to deftly wrongfoot his audience, over 40 years into his storied career.