Thursday 7 April 2011

Neil Young "Le Noise" (2010) (Revised Review 2016)

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Neil Young “Le Noise” (2010)

Walk With Me/Sign Of Love/Someone’s Gonna Rescue You/Love and War/Angry World/Hitch-Hiker/Peaceful Valley Boulevard/Rumblin’

‘I’m on this journey, I don’t want to walk alone!’

On our last ‘official’ issue, as part of an unusually lengthy two-issue new-release bonanza, we looked at an old friend re-inventing themselves in the best way possible, twisting some old ideas into a new form and doing so despite being as unpopular as they’ve ever been and getting only grudgingly good reviews (editor's note: as you're not reading these reviews in the order they were published this was...Oasis spin-off Beady Eye's debut 'Different Gear, Still Speeding') This week’s review finds Neil Young trying to do the same, finding a new outlet for his songs that he hasn’t used before, to whatever weird place that might take him (and heck, if even Neil hasn’t recorded an album in this style before, you know it’s going to get pretty weird). He's taken up the 'fork in the road' challenge of his last 'proper' release and decided to make another solo album, but with a difference - this time it won't be an acoustic album but a largely electric one. Oh and his single guitar is going to sound louder - louder than many of his Crazy Horse albums. Noise? Mayhem? Power? Sort of. But because this album features only one instrument and no interaction whatsoever this all sounds rather powerless and limp, like Neil staying on stage after his solo sets and not noticing the might of the Horse isn't there behind him, so that we get all that empty bluster without the power. Sadly on this album even the good songs tease promise rather than deliver it as every song would have benefitted hugely from the input of a band - any band, even The Shocking Pinks. Despite the name this isn’t noise in a fury sense, just a lot of uncoordinated bloops and squeals, a record that even more than ‘Broken Arrow’ or ‘Mirrorball’ feels like the first opening sketches of an album rather than an album itself. ‘le Noise’ is, in many ways, the limpest Young album outside ‘Greendale’, though for a bunch of largely unique reasons: the songs themselves are the best part of as package that seems to be self-destructively trying to make them sound awful or at the very best so unfinished its not worth the effort of joining the dots together.

Well, I guess that’s what you get for turning up to your producer’s living room with no definite idea of what you want to except a grab-bag of songs and an old guitar. All Neil knew he wanted on day one was his choice of producer - fellow Canadian Daniel Lanois (the first Neil's worked with since Bruce Palmer was kicked out the TransBand in 1982)  who'd come to fame working on 'soundscapes' with Brian Eno. The fact that Neil planned his whole album title round a pun on his name (le Noise/Lanois) suggests both how integral he was to the project (the producer's response is thankfully not recorded; David Briggs would have had Young shot for less) and how little thought had gone into theme and songs this time around. Oh and Neil being Neil he’d already invited a TV crew round before asking Lanois if he had agreed to the project and that would be ok? (The resulting performances are, I think it’s fair to say, the most boring in the Neil canon, badly lit affairs that take even the little magic and chemistry away from this project and reveal it to be made by a shuffling sixty-five year-old who barely looks anywhere near the camera the whole set). A kind of Phil Spector for the modern age, Daniel’s signature sound was combining echo with looped feedback and a sense that there was an army playing in the room rather than just a band (think Oasis in the period when Noel Gallagher got carried away guitar overdubs). All of the album was recorded in his naturally echoey house, as depicted on the front cover (this is one of the few records Neil didn't record in a barn, either on his property or in Nashville). It’s a giant house too, full of the big open cavernous sound Neil was clearly trying for on this album, though the resulting sound is more ‘spacey’ than ‘roomy’ in truth. This album, though, would be new for both men: instead of doing the obvious thing and hiring Crazy Horse Neil elected to work alone. 

This is, technically, the first time ever Neil released a whole studio album where he played everything himself. We'd got some 'nearlies' of course - much of 'Harvest Moon' and especially 'Silver and Gold' are solo, plus the first side of 'Hawks and Doves' and the unreleased 'Homegrown' from 1974 - but otherwise  this is a whole new genre. As a result too this album has the shortest credits of any album I’ve ever seen. There’s a credit for Daniel Lanois who doesn’t actually sound as if he’s done anything except to strip the sound of the record bare. There’s a credit for ‘recording’ by Mark Howard, who started and stopped the tapes. There’s a credit for art direction for our old friend Elliott Roberts, who seems to have taken all of his photos in the dark with a shaky phone-camera. There’s also a credit for ‘visual machinist’, whatever one of those is – someone who held Neil’s lyrics up for him to read perhaps? – and that’s it. No other musicians. No other engineers. No ‘guests’. Not even a backing singer or a choir, as Neil so often uses on his ‘bare’ recordings. Somehow that makes perfect sense – Neil’s been diluting his sound to go back to the ‘essence’ for some time now – but it makes for a better idea on paper than it does in practice sadly, with this album caught between 'ooh that's interesting and pure' and 'woah that's oddly busy and I can’t flipping hear the words'. The good news is that 'Le Noise' sounds different to anything that's gone before; the bad news is there's a reason for that as vast swathes of this album sound like the odd interesting idea in a sea of nothingness as Neil puts some scratchy demos together before taking time to record the whole thing. It’s notable too that Neil’s now gone from having ‘faith’ in working at the time of the ‘full moon’ (when he claims to feel most energy) to only working during a full moon and then refusing to add any finishing touches to a record – most of the recordings here badly need more work done to them and whilst working only on full moon weekends Neil just hasn’t had the time to make this album work as well as it should.

The problem is, as on many of his last few albums, Neil is being rewarded by fans and critics simply for being ‘brave’, for not altering his vision, rather than the quality of the music he makes. There is, of course, much to be said for courage: without it we wouldn’t have had ‘The Doom Trilogy’ or ‘Sleeps With Angels’ or any of the true best albums in his catalogue. However all those records worked because Neil had a vision that he refused to compromise on or allow to be diluted in anyway – on this album courage is all there is apart from a gimmick. There’s no reason why this group of songs had to be recorded in this way. You yearn to hear what these songs would have sounded like with a full band playing behind them and the ghosts of overdubs that weren’t to be lay in your head like some giant etcha-sketch. It goes a bit far though when Neil expects his fans to do the work finishing his records off rather than doing them himself. The sad truth is that Neil’s albums are becoming gradually less and less listenable, being delivered far more for the fans who follow Neil through thick and thin than the average man in the street who has a right to want to buy the new Neil Young album. ‘Le Noise’ has had some of the best reviews of any Neil Young project in a long long while (it was Rolling Stone Magazine's second best album of the year in 2010; admittedly it wasn't a vintage year but - second??? It didn't make our AAA albums of the year top five and that's just from bands related to 30 artists!) – and yet, despite its inventiveness and bravery, I’ve barely played it since buying it because it’s such hard work to listen to, in deep contrast to the Liam Gallagher/Beady Eye project which I have played to death and which the music world all hated. It’s as if Neil Young is in ‘fashion’ now and can do no wrong even when he is doing wrong – in stark contrast to the remnants of Oasis – and that thought I’m sure will have worried the heck out of Neil rather than pleased him. 'Le Noise' is what artists do near the end of their careers when they care about working with fashionable producers and doing something weird just for the hell of it; this is not a 'Doom Trilogy' moment but an artist running on empty. Neil Young’s back catalogue has never been about fashion – his muse might suddenly chime with the ideas of folk-rock, heavy rock or grunge occasionally, but that’s a happy coincidence and not what the grandmaster of rock is about at all. This site isn’t about fashion either – we try to look at each AAA artist’s releases as part of an ongoing ‘conversation’ between the artist and the listener, oblivious to the styles of the day – which leaves me a problem. How the heck am I meant to review this album, which is only a few months old, in an attempt to reflect all the latest AAA albums out there when even Neil doesn’t know how this story is going to turn out, let alone me. ‘Le Noise’ could be the turning point in Neil’s career. There are enough pointers towards greatness here after all and judging by critical reviews it’s what the critics at least want to hear. But then again, I suspect this is just yet another cul-de-sac on the way to Neil discovering where his music wants to take him, like the last half dozen or so albums (of which only ‘Prairie Wind’ is a solid addition to the Young canon). I just don’t know. 

Or maybe I do know, five years on. Since I wrote the first draft of this review there's quite plainly another reason for this album's lack of bite or substance. The last time we had a run of Young albums where he didn't say anything ('Hawks and Doves' 'Re-Ac-Tor' 'Trans' and 'Everybody's Rockin') there was a family tragedy Neil didn't want to talk about, let alone sing about. The birth of a son with cerebral palsy that took up most of his time left music as very much secondary in Neil's life - and yet he released albums anyway, because he wasn't ready yet to get the public, fan or media re-action to the news. A similar thing happens here I fear, with Neil finally preparing to leave his wife of twenty-seven years for Daryl Hannah he'd been meeting secret for at least the past two decades, off and on. Neil isn't ready to address his feelings just yet the way he will on 2014's Storytone, but something has obviously happened already big time as can be heard on wife Pegi's caustic second album 'Foul Deeds' released as the ‘companion’ piece to this record just a few weeks earlier. That record is much more traditionally ‘Neil’ like, filled with the sound of old friends like Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham, Anthony Crawford and Neil himself across some breezy country-folk-rock hybrids that are as direct and brutally honest as Neil traditionally is (and yes, the title is very much aimed at Neil by the sound of things). This is by contrast Neil literally on his own and out on a limb, his songs ringing hollow as he finally makes that difficult decision to break away from his wife to be with his girlfriend. After decades of building up to this you might expect Neil to have too much to say on the subject, to have songs pouring out of him, but it feels as if he’s said all he possibly an on the subject and is in hiding, on automatic pilot, releasing an album because it’s a break from dealing with his complex family situation. Neil is suddenly content to make up silly brief songs about an 'angry world' that needs healing, and the sound of an earthquake hinting at some unspecified change alongside one revealing song about 'love and war' and an old song from the 1980s named 'Hitch-Hiker'. 'I don't really know what I'm saying' sings Neil at one point in 'Love and War', even though he clearly did by this stage in his life and he was experiencing the tug of both at the same time, the happy times he will have with someone and the sad times this would cause with another. There are signs of the impending crisis elsewhere though as Neil seems to have been hit by a hypnotic hurricane on the[112] 'Like A...' sequel 'Walk With Me' as a new lover gets under his skin and he can't think straight. 'Sign Of Love' too has Neil admitting to little signs that make him think that it's time to move on, to a track that sounds very much like where we sort-of came in on [247] 'Love and Only Love'. We also get a return to the last possible moment before Neil had this dilemma, back to 1974 and  the title track of an abandoned album named  [377] ‘Hitch-Hiker’([203] 'Inca Queen' via [93] 'Driveback' sped up), updated to reflect the fact that Neil is back in the same headspace, lonely and lost and homeless. Even by Neil's 21st century form the melodies on this album are weak bordering on meaningless and actually the sonic production is quite a clever way of covering up the fact that Neil simply doesn't sound inspired. Yet again, as with the early 1980s, Neil has rather painted himself into a corner with his prolificness - if he hadn't released an album either this year or the next fans would have assumed something was wrong as you can tell purely from the title; in Neil's world where there's beautiful music things are going well, but when there's pure noise things are grim.  

Now, as always with Neil, there are positives. Neil’s voice sounds great across this album. His material is being increasingly written to reflect the new deeper, hoarser vocal style the last few years have left him, especially after the brain aneurysm scare of 2005, and without any other musicians or singers to distract from his voice it’s finally placed centre stage at just the right time in his career. Neil’s guitar-work, a mix of acoustic and electric this time around, doesn’t give him much room to stretch as in the glory days of old, but oh my goodness what a fine instinctive rhythm player Neil proves himself to be at times across this album. Lanois’ decision to cut out a funny wrong chord from ‘Walk With Me’ but then re-use it many times across the rest of the record Neil took to referring it as ‘the thud of doom’) is genuinely inventive, a sort of selective sampling that makes more sense that nicking bits from other people, as if a ‘mistake’ is always waiting to pounce on an often petrified sounding Neil. Add in one or two lyrics that reveal more about Neil than we’ve heard in years and a couple more of those clumsily-simple-and-yet-still-heartwrenchingly-profound chorus lines that Neil specialises in and this is at least an interesting album to read, if not always to listen to. Even the album effects, added by Lanois to Neil’s performances as he made them, have their moments, sounding at one point (the end of ‘Walk With Me’) like a party of devils waltzing to their doom, at another (‘Hitch-Hiker’) like a psychedelic freakshow and on a third (‘Rumblin’) as if the centre of the Earth is opening up and swallowing everyone up whole, in slow motion. Their presence on this album has, however, been over-written rather: the best moments are the one where Neil is so alone even the effects have been packed up into a bag and gone home, as per ‘Love and War’ or ‘Peaceful Valley Boulevard’. 

There’s also a neat thematic thread about asking for forgiveness and losing your way which makes for a much better half-concept to tie this album together than concept albums about cars and devils haranguing Greenpeace activists (that's 'Greendale' if you really want to know and clue: you don't). Interestingly much of it takes place while 'walking' as well, in great contrast to the recent car-bound 'Fork In The Road', as if Neil is either back in the spiritual forest he took us through on ‘Chrome Dreams II’ or taking baby steps in some new adventure rather than tearing at 100 miles in a converted car over old ground. Usually Neil starts 'travelling' in his songs when he gets restless – [240] 'White Line', originally for 'Homegrown' in 1974, is another song about itchy feet between relationships. Even if he had to stay put for now in reality, his characters could still wander off and have the life he did, while his new love makes him feel like he wants to keep moving (and grooving) rather than stand still. Neil starts off by pleading with another to 'Walk With Me' even though he doesn't know where he's headed simply because he doesn't want to walk so far alone. 'Sign Of Love' finds Neil and another lover holding hands and the mood feeling just 'right', the way it has all the other times in the past when Neil fell in love. 'Someone's Gonna Rescue You' has Neil reaching out in the darkness for someone to re-light his 'spark'. 'Love and War' boils the entire human condition down to two halves - in romantic terms and in international terms we're either busy fighting or we're at peace (in retrospect the tug of war going on here is obviously that between Pegi and Daryl heard on 'Storytone' as well). 'Angry World' limply adds that 'everything's going to turn out alright' but you feel, thanks to the howls of guitar echoing around Lanois' house, that it won't be - that the baying mob is going to take the world over after all. 'Hitch-Hiker', an old song from around 1976, has Neil travelling again only this is really a song not about geographical miles but inner-consciousness miles travelled while on drugs. Neil lists all his eras through the drugs he was taking, from hash to amphetamines to cocaine. By the second half of the song where Neil's eyes were once widened he's now so paranoid and strung out he can't close them at all, somehow ending up in a dream sequence where he's a 'runner in Peru' and hinting that this is only the latest body this restless pioneer finds himself in. 'Peaceful Valley Boulevard' is the odd song out, performed with less blistering echo and on an acoustic while the lyrics are more ecological protest in the vein of [248] 'Mother Earth' from the past and 'Monsanto Years' in the future. Finally there's 'Rumblin', a song about change as the ground shifts beneath Neil's feet and forces him to keep moving on to who knows where as he longs to ‘learn how to heal’. After three turbulent decades of trying to work out what to do for the best, all Neil can do now is pleads for forgiveness on a song where the earthquake going on all around him is the threat of change, uprooting the life he’s known for so long and making it oh so very different. 

At times it feels as if Neil is as free as he’s ever been, no longer having to pussyfoot around what his songs are really all about but openly singing a collection of songs about Daryl. Some of them even recall past songs perhaps written for her or perhaps earlier songs when he felt as lost and confused in-between marriages: ‘Love and War’ is [230] ‘Eldorado’,  ‘Someone’s Gonna Rescue You’ is [93] ‘Driveback’, ‘Hitch-Hiker’ quotes from re-write [240] ‘Like An Inca’; most everything here sounds like a slowed-down [112] ‘Like A Hurricane’ based around many of the same chords. At other times, though, he sounds more trapped than ever, the swirling effects making his guitar sound as if its caged, unable to truly take flight without a band or another soul to release it. ‘Le Noise’ is, then, an odd album: the sound of a millionaire musician playing solo in a cavernous mansion and raking in our money after spending barely any time actually making this LP caught up in a whirlwind of change, sensing monumental disturbances in his private and in the outer world and pleading for our forgiveness over both these things. It’s a confessional, set to reverb and feedback, a man shouting something so loud that we can barely hear it or understands what he says. It’s the sound of a man alone, reaching out for help, whilst knowing it will never come but reaching out anyway. Both muted and epic, ‘Le Noise’ is a record that’s as challenging to listen to as it was to live and yet wasn’t at all to make.  

This is an earth-altering album where the rules have all changed suddenly; it's just a shame it's not more of a ground-breaking album, despite how it was reported at the time. For all their occasional greatness ('Hitch-hiker' is a worthy oldie, whilst 'Love and War' is quite an affecting song) the tracks all sound frustratingly unfinished, as if you’re listening to a bootleg’s early mix of an album you don’t actually know and desperately want to hear one day. Some of these songs are also annoyingly undercooked, especially the first and last tracks, which don’t really have anywhere to go past their repetitive choruses. The whole album runs to a decidedly stingy 37 odd minutes – a short album in the pre-CD days never mind the MP3 era and a full twenty shorter than Neil’s last album (that’s the entire length of Neil’s 1983 album ‘Everybody’s Rockin’!) And the one lengthy set of lyrics that really does seem to be heading towards ‘epic’ status comes matched with one of the most boring heard-it-before one-chord melodies it’s hard not to cringe at such a waste of talent. ‘Le Noise’ is not without worth. There are points dotted across this album where the concept really works, where Neil’s strong vocals, impressive guitar playing, bare-bones backing and meaningful ideas really come together and knock you over. But too often this album is marking time, trying too hard to become a ‘significant’ album in the Neil Young catalogue without the arranging powers, important contributions from other musicians to bounce off or even at times a fully finished song. It desperately needs an overhaul, a remix, a live tour to bash it into shape and three or four more first-class songs. Short of that it needs to be heard directly, starkly, bare-bones: yes the ‘ghosts’ of the effect fit the mood but ultimately they’re still a gimmick distracting us from the very realness Neil brings to all his works. At times hearing ‘Le Noise’ is like seeing a doddle of what could have been a real piece of artwork that was lost to eternity through mere laziness and the odd latest left-turn by Neil’s ever confusing muse. Neil is stretching the faith of his followers to breaking point by now and while I’m happy to follow him for the nuggets of pure gold he gives us from time to time, after this album and the relatively uninspired ones that follow it I’m beginning to despair of ever hearing a ‘proper’ Neil Young album ever again. 

The Songs:

My guess is that Neil has been doing a lot of meditating before making this album – there’s the definite feel across ‘Le Noise’ of the sounds you hear in your head when you’re properly listening and hear several bits of snatched conversation going on at once. [372] ‘Walk With Me’, is a common meditative prayer, putting faith into something you can’t see or hear but can very much feel, the embodiment perhaps of the [336] ‘Prairie Wind’/[112] ‘Hurricane’ that has been raging through Neil’s life and creating ripples, here more than ever. Neil is more alone than we have probably ever heard him, with every note of this song punctuating the silence like a knife – we’ve had solo live shows before but even they came with an audience and ambient noise, but here there’s nothing until Neil opens his mouth and plugs in his guitar. And he’s fed up of it: ‘Walk with me!’ he pleads, whether to lover, friend or foe. In a way this simple song is dedicated to all three: it’s surely on one level an invitation to Daryl (not that she was ever likely to refuse it, given the decades it seems she had been trying to get Neil to leave wife and family for her). On another it’s us, picking up on the dying embers of [370] ‘Fork In The Road’ that ‘my sales have tanked’, Neil realising that after decades now of teasing listeners he can’t expect us to hang around for him and get his act together every time and still get high chart positions. On another level though ‘Walk With Me’ is an invocation to some bigger spirit to keep Neil safe as he leaves security and comfort behind him for a path that’s un-trodden and unknown, pockmarked by dragons at the edges of the Earth waiting to drag him down. ‘I’ll never let you down, no matter what’ pleads Neil, but the effects don’t make him sound entirely truthful, the looping feedback making Neil echo himself as if he’s said this all so many times before (indeed, he had to Daryl frequently). Neil also sweetly mentions that he ‘lost some friends along the way’ – no wonder this song sounds haunted, with Ben Keith having now joined Danny Whitten, David Briggs and the ranks of former colleagues who are no longer around anymore. Death often brings out the best in Neil’s lyrical abilities, but alas this is just a passing thought in a short song that promises much but never quite catches fire. There’s also something ironic about having what must be the barest Neil Young album of all more or less starting with the line ‘I’m on this journey and I don’t want to walk alone’. The polar opposite of [68] ‘Walk On’, this is a man who has had enough of being out in the cold and wants to be loved again, but doesn’t know quite how to do it. Certainly this production, particularly weak on this song, is not the way: everything is loud yet tinny and quiet, as if performed at a tinnitus-inducing volume then mixed by church mice. Lanois’ effects are increasingly stupid cries for attention, with what sounds like a cackling crow at one point (or is it a rook?) that hover round the song without actually belonging here and lead to a truly mind-numbingly awful thirty second finale of nonsense pulsing beats already done better on ‘Arc’. Even the song itself is just two short verses long – and no, Neil, writing them out as full sentences in the CD booklet doesn’t make them seem any longer. Like many songs on this album, I’ve had great fun imagining how it could sound – there’s a great rhythm part for some Ralph Molina-type drumming, space for some call-and-answer vocals and a great ‘aaaah’ middle eight that might have sounded fantastic with some horns or strings. But, alas, despite this song’s promise, I have to write about what’s here and what there is doesn’t add up to much.

[373] Sign Of Love’ is the latest in a growing line of love songs for Daryl that tend to be unlike those Neil wrote for his former wives/girlfriends. They tend to be defensive for one thing, edgy, not quite sure if Neil’s on to the good thing he thinks he is but written so that he can’t look away. The slashing grungy chords would have been right at home on ‘Mirrorball’, while the effects and echo make the song feel less romantic and more like a panic attack. It doesn’t help that the melody is ripped off wholesale from an earlier Young composition that was perhaps the least loved-up love song in his catalogue: the ‘one night stand’ track [277] ‘Act Of Love’. The lyrics are, on their own, rather sweet however: Neil is enjoying the small things like ‘going for a little walk’ with his soulmate, holding her hand,  perhaps taking Daryl to the forest on his ‘Broken Arrow’ ranch where he was getting all the spiritual thoughts of ‘Chrome Dreams II’. They both feel ‘the winds of fate’ and it makes Neil feel good that it wasn’t all in his head but was clearly meant to be, fated by whoever is in charge of these things. Neil refers back to how long they’ve waited for this moment to happen: ‘When I first saw you, you were just a girl and I was a man’ (it’s hard to know when exactly the two met and fell in love but a guesstimate of 1985, when she was twenty-five and he was forty-five, seems likely). He sees a long future together though, with both of their hair turning ‘silver’ together now and his regret at wasting so much time when other people were ‘dancing’ with her (an old Young euphemism last heard about Daryl – we think – on [208] ‘We Never Danced’). There’ve been lots of comments and even complaints over the years about Neil being undemonstrative, but that’s because a lot of people miss out on the signs (Neil is a secretive triple Scorpio, after all) and most of it is internal (judging by Jimmy McDonough’s in-depth biography ‘Shakey’ anyway). This is Neil’s admission that he might not get around to saying ‘I love you’ very much, but he means it anyway. The result is a sweet little song that’s rather hard done by on this album, perhaps deliberately given that without all the extras it would surely be one of Neil’s sickliest songs. Even so, the ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ weaving boxing riff sounds miscast on this sweet little track, Neil’s vocal is more ‘Addams Family’ than ‘Mills and Boon’ and the effects make everything, even love, seem scary. A remix or a live cut would I suspect be great, but again we can only go with what’s on the album in this review – and what there is ain’t much. 

It must have been with some relief that Neil could finally come out and write love songs for Daryl, clearly his obsession in this period. [374] Someone’s Looking To Rescue You’ is a song about their mutual similarities and fears and how the only person who can ever rescue the one is the other. Neil sings some verses to his sweetheart, some to himself, in a restless edgy song surrounded by phantoms and ghosts. Neil debates how even things that are good for him can sometimes seem wrong – how there’s ‘the dark’ in ‘every ray of sunshine’ and how a spark that fires him up can ‘burn your heart’. He sounds, to be honest, less in love and more possessed even though he sings this song much sweeter and lovlier than the last one. Overall, though, this is a curious song that’s part love song, part put down. The narrator’s partner doesn’t ‘see him at all’, doesn’t understand his deeper self and yet by the end of the song Neil is quite genuinely offering encouragement, telling his unseen friend that ‘no one can do the things you do’. One thing that’s occurred to me while playing this song back: is it in fact not written for Daryl but for another person Neil feels more love-hate connections with? By 2010 Stephen Stills has had a bumpy ride. Onto his fourth marriage, diagnosed with prostrate cancer and struggling with the aftermath of a drug addiction he bravely kicked without all the hoo-hah of David Crosby, he and Neil had reconnected on Stills’ pretty awful comeback album ‘Man Alive’ in 2005 and the ‘Freedom Of Speech’ tour of 2006. After so many years of being told by the press how different they are, Neil seems to be showing here that they aren’t that different; both are self-destructive, somehow able to find the worst in humanity even at the best of times and restless to move on when something has gotten good.  If so, then this song makes an intriguing sequel to [262] ‘Stringman’, a man who is ‘burnt’ by the creative spark that seems to give him life but in reality burns him out by making him work so hard (Stills came to the same conclusion on his unreleased-till-2009 song ‘Witching Hour’, which might have been what inspired this song – Neil surely got a copy of it via Manassas outtake set ‘Pieces’). Young’s affection for his old partner (if that is what this song is about) is clear to see (‘No one can do the things you do’), just as it is on all his past songs that he’s admitted are about Stills (even the nasty-sounding [237] ‘Cocaine Eyes’ from the ‘Eldorado’ EP is actually quite a supportive song, behind all those sighs about wasting talent), which is a moving touch, especially Neil’s reflective ‘someone’s going to rescue you’ chorus line. Whoever it is, Neil finds a connection in their anxiety: ‘You’re scared of the way it goes sometimes in the night, but when it gets the best of you, you put up a fight’. But there’s no real tune here and – apart from that classy opening couplet – not many lyrics to go on either and the sparse, echo-drenched backing quickly becomes wearing. Perhaps if Young had roped Stills in to play on this song and opened it up to some guitar duelling this could have been a classic – as it is, it’s yet another demo of an intriguing song that’s not been made for repeated listenings.  

[375] ‘Love and War’ is the twee-est song Neil’s written in ages (since 1978’s [121] ‘Already One’ perhaps) and yet, many simplistic Neil Young songs on, it still manages to make some kind of profound sense compared to other lesser pieces in the same vein. Though only ‘Hawks and Doves’ made the connection complicit, many Young albums can be divided into songs about ‘peace/love’ and ‘war’. Sometimes Neil spends a whole album offering us one before smashing us with a whole album of the other (‘Prairie Wind’ and ‘Living With War’). Once Neil even stuck both in a single song, courtesy of Pearl Jam (the much more interesting [283] ‘Peace and Love’). Here, though, the dichotomy is reduced to its barest simplest point: life is a balance between the yin and the yang, a fight between the light and the dark, an ongoing conversation between the good and the bad. Reducing centuries of fighting over complex social, political and religious differences into  the simple lines ‘they pray to Allah and they pray to the Lord, but mostly they pray about love and war’ sounds like Neil’s taking the easy route, but it makes more sense when the song opens up into a soldier trying to break it to his children that he’s being sent into a warzone and may not be coming back. No matter how hard the soldier tries, no matter how many complex reasons he gives, he still can’t find one reason convincing enough to go to war and why it should trump the love he has for his children – a great political slant that would have been great as part of the 2006 ‘Living With War’ album. That’s only half of the song, however, as Neil reaches back to his past with lines about his personal take on ‘love and war’, the themes behind most of his work of the past five decades. Neil started singing about it ‘on the backstreets of Toronto’ and once ‘sang it for justice’ (with friends CS and N?) but recently he ‘hit a bad chord’ (just as Lanois’ editing helps him, erm, hit a bad chord). Then – out of left field – we have what this song is really about with the lyric ‘the worst thing in the world is to break the heart of your lover’. The real tug-of-war Neil has felt and which he has battled against for thirty odd years now is the fact that by embracing the love of Daryl he effectively has to declare war on Pegi, the wife who for all their differences clearly loves him too much to ever let him go judging by her period albums. The line ‘I made a mistake – and I did it again – and we struggled to recover’ reveals that even after all this time Neil isn’t quite sure that he’s onto a good thing here. The lines about ‘hitting a bad chord’ are interesting too – Neil’s never used his song-writing as a metaphor for his life (that’s much more of a Stephen Stills idea) , but that’s what he seems to be doing here, all but admitting to his audience that his heart’s not been in music recently (which would explain ‘Greendale’ and the amount of old songs we’ve seen appearing on Young’s albums recently). In fact, could it be that the penultimate line of the song is Neil admitting that in all his songs about ‘love and war’ (ie pretty much all of them) ‘I don’t really know what I’m saying’. A typically confusing song, this is the most complex puzzle Neil’s given his fans to solve for years and the sensitive reading given here, with most of the effects conspicuous by their absence, suggests that this song means a lot to Neil. Why, then, is this song given such a basic throwaway arrangement, largely derived from two chords, which all but defies you to concentrate all the way to the end. Or is that the point – is Neil, even now, trying to trick his fans into missing his greatest lyrical revelation of the past twenty years? A fascinating but frustrating song – I still can’t tell whether I love or hate ‘Love and War’, a confusion that at least is entirely in keeping with the obscure sentiments of this unique song!  

[376] ‘Angry World’ is another simple Young song where a complex planet Earth gets simplified down to its core elements, where ‘businessmen and fishermen’ alike are angry because the world that’s been left them is faulty. There’s some fascinating lyrics here – and I’d go so far as to say the opening couplet ‘Some see life as a broken promise, some see life as an endless fight’ is the best opening line Neil’s written since ‘I think I’ll pack it in and buy a pick-up’ right back in 1972 (and [46] ‘Out On The Weekend’), so true in its twin depictions of despair. The song moves on to the battle between two different sets of people in how life works: is it a chance to ‘live eternal’, day to day, or a ‘business plan’ mapped out to the nth degree? Many people Neil knows long for hell because they screwed up so badly in what should have been paradise, because that’s easier than starting over and setting things right. My guess is that Neil heard Stephen Stills’ song ‘Wounded World’ (from the afore-mentioned ‘Man Alive’) and thought ‘I’ll have a bit of that!’ while characteristically disagreeing with his partner (only half the world is wounded here). A nicely divided song for our not so nicely divided times, ‘Angry World’ has an immediacy the rest of the album lacks, although even there it falls down by falling short of where an inspired Neil of old would have taken it, petering out after just two similar verses. The eerie tape echo, which has Neil chanting ‘age me age me age me age me age me’ over and over also at last make good on this album’s production promise and make a good song sound great, giving this simplistic piece of music an edge and danger missing from even the most acerbic tracks here. Intriguingly, the lines ‘age me age me...’ aren’t actually part of the finished lyric – could it be they’re taken from an earlier draft (it wouldn’t be the first time Neil’s re-written a song but left a shadow of the original poking through the finished recording) or is it just the ‘hidden message’ of the song, that everyone wants to ‘grow up’ and enjoy a ‘freedom’ in the world where they can get on with doing what they have to do – only to find the world and our social system is too complex to do that and will always leave people doing something they don’t want to do. Either way, the vocal effect is truly creepy, especially the ending where Neil’s ever-common feedback tries to compete with the nagging line, only to fall back in weary, aching defeat. ‘Angry World’ (as it’s listed on the back cover – the lyric sheet refers to it as ‘It’s An Angry World’) is by far the best recording here, the only really significantly finished sounding song here and yet even then I can imagine even better, fuller recordings of this track in my head (it sounds like a Crazy Horse song with passionate harmony vocals on the chorus to me). Still, I’m only getting angry because it’s so close to perfection this time instead of so far – and of course because this is an ‘angry world’.

[377] ‘The Hitch-Hiker’ should be the best thing on the album. After all, it’s been a big part of Neil Young folklore since first being revealed in concert in 1975 – it’s last verse was even recycled for the impressive (to me, anyway – a lot of fans don’t like it for some reason) [240] ‘Like An Inca’ on Neil’s 1982 album ‘Trans’. This is the track that even non-fan reviewers, unaware of its significance, have been jumping about most over since this album came out. After all what is there not to like – Neil’s baring his soul, telling his autobiography via a series of out-on-the-road gigs and recounting the chapters of his life not via albums or marriages or even favourite records (as per [253] ‘From Hank To Hendrix’), a hazy memory of what drugs he was on at the time (strange since – contrary to his reputation and compared to say Jerry Garcia, Keith Moon and John Lennon – Neil’s never been much of a drug-taker, in part because of his fear of drugs triggering off his epileptic seizures). If you listen to one of the earlier versions of this song on bootleg or even just read the lyric booklet, it sounds like an epic, the most revealing Young song since [154] ‘Transformer Man’ in 1982 and the most autobiographical since [63] ‘Don’t Be Denied’ way back in 1973. But oh how this ‘Le Noise’ version disappointed me – it’s played more or less all the way through on those ‘choppy chords’ Neil saves for his most repetitive and least distinguished songs (the ‘Broken Arrow’ album was nearly all filled up with chords like these). There’s no real deviation or pause from the irritating rhythm or the similar-sounding melody. Even the classic ‘Like an Inca’ bit, about Neil taking so many drugs that he loses his link with who he is and goes back in time to be an Inca house-builder, is shorter than we’ve heard it in the past and sounds more like a dumb final verse to help finish the song than the revelation it should be.    

Still, there’s no denying this 1970s song is too good to have stayed unreleased for all this time, even in a sadly diluted version. In the first verse alone, Neil’s vividly painted himself as a ‘hitch-hiker’ trying to get by in a world that doesn’t want him there and which he doesn’t fit into, taking Hash in Toronto at the beginning of his career (when he could afford it), before an introduction to amphetamines (‘taped under the speedometer wires of my Buick ‘48’) turns his mind to ‘glass’, with a vivid image of the ‘speed’ this suddenly gives Neil a metaphor for the singer finding himself tied to the wheel of his beloved car. All goes wrong when Neil finds fame with Buffalo Springfield in California, but takes to it badly – now, far from needing ‘uppers’, Neil has to take valium as prescribed by a doctor and yet is still so wired he ‘still can’t close my eyes’. Neil finally admits to ‘paranoia’ in the end of the Springfield days, refusing to sign autographs or appear on TV (much to the rest of the band’s frustration) before falling in love and ‘smoking grass’ chills him out in a land where at last everything is ‘green’. Alas, Neil splits up with second wife Carrie and loses custody of first son Zeke before falling into a cocaine habit to ‘ease that different load’ before his head finally ‘explodes’, leaving Neil unsure of his identity and back in the past, building houses for Incas in Peru. Alas, the story isn’t updated (for those who don’t know, Neil all but swore off drugs after meeting Pegi – not least after seeing rushes for the Band’s ‘farewell film’ The Last Waltz, where a guesting Neil singing ‘Helpless’ clearly has an expensive wedge of cocaine up his nose, something he’s managed to have excised from later prints of the film). What we do get is virtually the Neil Young signature tune of the past few years: ‘Many years have come and gone like friends and enemies, I tried to leave my past behind but it’s catching up with me’. It’s time, in other words, to come clean – about Daryl, about drugs, about the real reasons Neil once had celebrated hallucinations of being a runner in Peru. If you’re even a halfway Neil Young fan, one of those who like me have travelled with the man from the Springfield days though to CSNY, Harvest and the Doom trilogy and beyond, you need to hear this song, just to get a better grasp of what Neil’s all about. I urge you, though, to accept that this version of ‘Hitch-Hiker’ is a pale shadow of former glories, one that fits on this strangely hazy yet confessional album but really doesn’t suit the new bare arrangement Neil’s chosen to give it and instead turn to the ‘archives’ album ‘Hitch-Hiker’, finally released in 2017. ‘Hitch-Hiker’ is by some margin the best song on this album – but its’ also by some margin the worst recording. Frustrating, fascinating, flipping slippers – ‘Hitch-Hiker’ is Neil Young in a nutshell, the perfect metaphor for a wandering genius who still hasn’t learnt to stand still. 

After ‘Hitch-Hiker’ the rest of the album sounds downright wimpy by comparison. Matters aren’t helped that next track [378] ‘Peaceful Valley Serenade’ is both the longest track on the album (at a fraction past seven minutes) and the most repetitive. Again, there’s a fairly good lyric going on here about colonialisation, something that’s clearly inspired by the first white settlers on American soil but is just about ambiguous enough to be about any colonialisation (even Iraq and – now topically – Libya, in fact anywhere where another country interferes over matters which are no concern of theirs; listen out for the classic line about being invaded ‘first for gold – and then for oil’ which sums up every one of America’s ‘interventions’ in the past hundred years or so). Neil’s never really written many ‘Indian’ songs, despite his oft-mentioned ‘Indian to Stills’ cowboy’ image in the Springfield days and the fact he re-named his backing band ‘Crazy Horse’. ‘Serenade’ isn’t strictly an ‘Indian’ song either – it’s too ambiguous for that – but it does make for interesting reading, not least for Neil’s claim that the injuries caused to [248] ‘Mother Earth’ began not with the industrial revolution but the beginnings of trade between countries, with greedy merchants trying to take more and more precious metals that weren’t theirs to take. The song starts with God crying ‘tears of rain’ like the Biblical flood, ready to wipe mankind out for going ‘wrong’ even at this early stage in development as ‘his’ creations turn their backs on his word and law and do things their way. There’s a sudden shift to the present day in the last verse though, again suggesting links to Iraq, with a billboard reading that ‘people will make the difference’ – only it’s not one person that invades another country but the might of a military force. Neil then echoes his 2006 song [348] ‘Lookin’ For A Leader’, asking what visionary will step forward and lead the way out of this mess, because we sure need one. Neil then ends on one of his most pessimistic verses of all: a polar bear, with aching sun pouring on his back, drifts away on a shrinking iceberg while political leaders rant and rage about climate change – and do nothing. It’s all part of a long history of capitalism started in Plymouth Rock with the first settlers, claims Neil, and no one is in a position to stop it now. A fascinating song to read, ‘Serenade’ is more of a poem than a song which might explain why Neil takes the easy route by giving this track the simplest and most annoying melody he can think of – which is even more of a shame than on the rest of the record, as you can hear just how special this song might have become. Bah, again touches of genius have given way to a rather poor result. And surely this ecological rant, of all songs, would have been the perfect excuse to resurrect the ‘Stray Gators’? 

The album closes on a very disconcerting note. [379] ‘Rumblin’ is a one note song and a one line idea stretched out to a full 3:36, played via the most distorted amplifier heard since ‘You Really Got Me’ (but without the commitment of Dave Davies behind it). There is a great line about guilt – the key theme of the album – with the couplet ‘How will I learn how to listen? When will I learn how to feel? When will I learn how to give back? When will I learn how to heal?’ unusually head-hanging for Neil (this is the same guy who gave his reasons for leaving the Springfield via the wonderfully egocentric song ‘I Am A Child’ remember) and its’ a line that will ring in your head for some time after the song and album have finished. The rest of the song though is just a feeling that something’s about to happen – the weather’s changing, the earth is spinning, there’s something in the air, with yet more album references to winds and hurricanes blowing a growing breeze across the land. Is it a big change in the life of Neil Young personally (again, he’s curiously adamant about being sorry for something on this track which makes it sound as if he’s finally come clean and told Pegi what he has been up to) or for the Earth in general (world leaders getting more and more out of control; climate change getting stronger all the time). This would, surely, be the moment when Lanois’ sound effects come into their own, but apart from a bit of static hiss and sudden random moments of distortion on Neil’s voice there’s disappointingly little here. My guess is the pair’s collaboration started here when they were testing each other out and seeing what exactly they could do with this album – it’s a real lost opportunity that they didn’t return to it though, if so, as there’s so much ,more in this song that could have been given. After all, Neil is desperate by now, cracked by guilt, haunted by deceit, scared by his visions of an uncertain future. He should be absolutely terrified, at [88] ‘Dangerbird’ levels of nervous tension – instead it sounds as if he’s reading a phone directory while getting his thumb caught in his guitar. A few lines about feeling something coming is not enough of an idea to sustain a whole song, not least because the grungy guitar-work is so distracting and Neil’s vocal is at his most chaotic and unrehearsed on this recording. Still, ‘Rumblin’ does at least have an urgency, something this album needed more of – why is it that the most ear-catching songs here are the shallowest and the worst sounding songs the best? Answers on a postcard, but not just yet please – my mind is still boggling after trying to get to grips with what must be one of Neil’s heaviest-going, hardest-to-pin down, gloriously unstructured albums of his whole back catalogue.  

The verdict then? Well, it’s not quite the worst Neil Young record. As far as I’m concerned that’s a fight to the finish between 2000’s ‘Road Rocks – Friends and Relatives’ (where an 18-minute live version of one of Neil’s worst ever tracks – [54] Words – single-handedly destroys laws about time and physics by slowing down time to a crawl) and ‘Greendale’ (where some weirdos try to kill other weirdoes before the weirdest weirdo starts protesting big business for killing her Grandpa when it was actually the weirdoes who work for the telly). But despite nuggets of promise, ‘Le Noise’ is a lot closer to the lowest points in Neil’s ever growing canon than his highest and the fact that I’d even put it on a par with Neil’s soundtrack to ‘Where The Buffalo Roam’ (a more similar album than you might expect, one where Neil overloads his solo guitar with feedback and sings an a capella version of ‘Home On The Range’ for a full five minutes) doesn’t exactly put this album in a great light either. The most annoying thing is that I’d love to hear every single song on this album played differently – I’m sure many of them would be my favourites (one already is, in the case of 1970s live versions of ‘Hitch-Hiker’). But too often the ‘Le Noise’ aspect of the album gets in the way – the idea that Neil has to be alone to sing these songs, that he can’t use overdubs, that he has to work quickly while the moon is out – and prevents this ok-ish album from being a great one. Please, Neil, I’ve followed you through thick and thin, I’ve bought your twenty minute rockabilly record (and even liked half of it), I adore your synths and vocoders album ‘Trans’ and I’ve even been known to tap my feet at large sections of ‘Landing on Water’ and ‘Broken Arrow’. But don’t make another record like this one – it’s just too bare, too sparse and too heavy going. Worst of all, it means your best collection of songs in years have been robbed of their rightful power and majesty, as even though each lyric is shorter than average by Neil standards there is still enough in these lines to make me yearn to hear them played properly, with rich melodies instead of the recycled doodling here and played by a full band instead of the surprisingly weedy sounding solo guitar and muted production rumbles. Given the fuss and the novelty of the partnership I was expecting a revolution: instead we got one of Neil’s least interested or interesting albums, one churned out the quickest way with the least amol8unt of stress despite the fact that the best of this album (‘Angry World’ and ‘Hitch-Hiker’_ clearly deserve so much more than this. Neil, I await your next move in trepidation – but you can at least count that I’ll be there to hear it, walking with you, however cross about this album I might be and even whilst you age me, age me, age me, age me…After all, artists like Neil are hard to come by and even when heard half-baked like this there are still hundreds of reasons why I believe the next Neil Young album might still be the greatest of them all. Now that’s the patience of unconditional love for you! The question is, will unconditional love be enough? Join us for more confusing Young pyrotechnics on ‘Psychedelic Pill’ coming soon!

A now complete list of Neil Young and related articles at Alan’s Album Archives:

'Neil Young' (1968)

'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' (1969)

‘After The Goldrush’ (1970)

'Harvest' (1972)

'Time Fades Away' (1973)

'On The Beach' (1974)

'Zuma' (1975)

'American Stars 'n' Bars' (1977)

'Comes A Time' (1978)

'Rust Never Sleeps' (1979)

'Hawks and Doves' (1980)

'RelAclTor' (1981)

'Trans' (1982)

'Everybody's Rockin' (1983)

'Old Ways' (1985)

‘Landing On Water’ (1986)

‘This Note’s For You’ (1988)

'Freedom' (1988)

'Ragged Glory' (1990)

'Weld' (1991)

'Harvest Moon' (1992)

'Sleeps With Angels' (1993)

'Mirror Ball' (1995)

‘Silver and Gold’ (2000)

‘Are You Passionate?’ (2002)

'Greendale' (2003)

‘Prairie Wind’(2005)

‘Living With War’ (2006)

‘Chrome Dreams II’ (2007)

'Fork In The Road' (2009)

'Le Noise' (2011)

'A Treasure' (1986/2012)

'Storytone' (2014)

'The Monsanto Years' (2015)

Live/Compilation/Crazy Horse Albums Part One 1968-1972

Live/Compilation/Crazy Horse Albums Part Two 1977-2016

Surviving TV Clips 1970-2016

Neil Essay: Will To Love – Spiritualism and The Unseen In Neil’s Music

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