Aside from the vast back catalog, which remains one of the richest in rock history, and his astounding energy as a live performer, which persists even as he approaches his 65th birthday next month, the most inspiring thing about Neil Young is that he differs from so many of the other legends of his generation by his refusing to rest on his laurels, consistently challenging himself and his audience by pushing to innovate five decades on.
Sometimes, his experiments fail (the rockabilly exercise of "Everybody's Rockin'" in 1983), sometimes they succeed (the underrated rock opera "Greendale" in 2003), and sometimes they're so odd that they just leave you scratching your head (the synth-rock of "Trans" in 1982, or the metal machine music of "Arc/Weld" in 1991). But the experimental "Le Noise" is one of the unqualified successes.
Working with renowned producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan), second only to his mentor Brian Eno as the master of mysterious ambience, Young set out to make a true solo album, one where he "didn't have to teach anybody the songs," and his voice and electric or acoustic guitar combine with the swirling background ambience created by Lanois as the only sounds on eight tracks clocking in at just under 40 minutes.
Yet despite the minimalist arrangements and Spartan musical settings, the album that Ol' Shakey named after the sonic monster that he claims inhabits Lanois' Los Angeles mansion where the two recorded is as ferocious as Crazy Horse at its most fierce, with sometimes overwhelming walls of six-string attitude and a sonic assault he calls "folk-metal." All that's missing is the rhythm section.
Young is not really exploring new lyrical turf. The rare acoustic tune "Peaceful Valley Boulevard" is another of those songs pondering the effects of imperialist expansion on native peoples, like "Pocahontas" or "Cortez the Killer." "Love and War" (which the songwriter cites as the two topics he's most often addressed) and "Angry World" are vintage hippie Neil, railing at the way things are and longing for a better universe. ("Some see life as a broken promise/Some see life as an endless fight," he sings at the start of the latter. "They think they live in the age of darkness/They think they live in the age of light"). There also are two tunes paying tribute to his beloved and "faithful wife," Pegi.
Only the longtime concert rarity of the previously unrecorded "Hitchhiker" offers a new glimpse of this familiar presence, chronicling his early days as a young rocker and confessing first-hand experience with the sort of druggy excess we always suspected that he had to know first-hand in order to write a song as painful and poignant as "The Needle and the Damage Done."
The surprise in "Le Noise," then, is partly sonic: Wow, this guy can still kick ass even when he's all by his lonesome self! But even more, it's a joy to hear Young tell well-known stories and work familiar sounds in such a way that it feels as if we're hearing them for the very first time, and hanging on every note to discover what the next will bring.
Neil Young, "Le Noise" (Reprise) Rating: 3.5/4