By Conrad Amenta | 7 October 2010
Jian Ghomeshi of the CBC recently conducted a television interview with Neil Young and Daniel Lanois, the sort of fawning, mildly embarrassing thing one might expect from Canada’s national news agency in discussion with a couple of national icons. They sat in a bar so as to convey familiarity, as if Ghomeshi had happened in from the street to find the two drinking together, but the room was eerily empty, as clearly contrived a setting as a fireside chat, and the three sat sort of uncomfortably facing each other on barstools, aware of the absurdity of the analysis to come and of the exercise in general.
And the analysis that came was a bit absurd. Ghomeshi , CBC’s attempt at an avatar for the demographic with its ear to the cultural ground, tried his best to ask questions that would mean something to both his audience and two men whose most recognizable work is now forty years old. It was unclear if Young was ineluctably framed by Ghomeshi’s questions or if there was simply no other way one could actually go about interviewing a personality like Neil Young.
Q: “How Canadian is this album?” (A: “Very.”)
Q, to the leather jacket-clad Lanois, one of the most celebrated and recognized producers in the world, and a man who regularly works with some of rock’s biggest celebrities: “Were you star struck?” (A: “Yes, a little,” at which Young scoffed, disbelieving.)
Q: “What is your approach to songwriting?” (A: “Don’t think. The worst songs I’ve ever written happen when I think.”)
As Ghomeshi tried to divine an angle from the unthinking idol and his star struck producer, they played clips of Le Noise set to stark, black-and-white photography. Young’s high-end trill over a solitary, distorted guitar, not exactly noisy, not exactly dirty, but representations of noise and dirt to which journalists will return again and again. As contrived an exercise in grit, ultimately, as CBC’s cleared-out bar was in amicability.
All of which is to say that try as his biographers and fans might to render each of his songs deliberate or preordained or insightful, Young remains largely defined by his impulsiveness and refusal to expand beyond the basic premise of the initial idea, which he holds up as some sort of unpolluted, authentic impression on the brain pan. Hence our retrospective view of his late career’s many curious missteps—the maudlin 9/11 tribute “Let’s Roll” from the downright terrible Are You Passionate? (2002); the confusing and confused concept record Greendale (2003); the stereotypical Prairie Wind (2005) and largely forgettable Fork in the Road (2009); the performance of “Long May You Run” at the Vancouver Winter Olympics’ closing ceremony alongside misogyny-rock act Nickleback and the bubblegum pop Avril Lavigne, two acts also put through the strainer of Canada’s occasionally desperate national identity crisis for which the CBC acts as both lens and megaphone. While his impulsiveness might sometimes yield Tonight’s the Night (1975), or the latter day revelation Living With War (2006), those successes, and the authenticity with which they’re attributed by older demographics, act still as the rose-colored glasses for Young’s many, many flops. He remains unapologetic and always moving forward; the degree to which you admire and wish to constantly invoke that paradigm will largely determine your enjoyment of the messy, flawed, tossed-off, and, yes, occasionally interesting Le Noise.
What the record is really about is neither noise, nor the supposed synergy between this artist and producer (the title is a terrible pun of sorts on Lanois’ name), but Young and wife Pegi. “You can take it as a sign of love / When I’m looking at you for a long, long time,” he warbles on the slushy “Sign of Love.” And on “Walk With Me,” Young describes walking the land, holding hands, being on a journey, not wanting to walk alone, et cetera. In the album’s better moments, songs like “Sign” seem to place Young at the center of a caterwauling noise, cast him as the emaciated man stripped to his anima by a mad world—a Johnny Cash-like figure if Cash had chosen Flower Power over Biblical dread, or had grown up in the North rather than the South. But the atmosphere is sketched poorly, the mood fleeting; every line that engenders pathos or inspiration seems stumbled upon, accidental, and is followed invariably by a clunker.
The hub of Young’s paradoxical, maddening inconsistency is a kind of profound, Zen stubbornness, an insistence that he document without scrutiny. He’s unpretentious and never pretends to have answers, but this makes listening to a Neil Young record a uniquely frustrating experience. On “Hitchhiker,” Young gives us a laundry list of drugs he once took. Ghomeshi, seeing low-hanging fruit and essentially understanding his mainstream audience, made sure to ask Young what he was trying to say, and Young replied that he neither recommends nor expresses regret about his extensive drug use. This sums up Young’s approach to songwriting, the tacit doctrine that to document one’s fleeting impressions and reactions will be to document the cultural atmosphere of a time—that this can actually succeed, and is plenty to expect from a songwriter. But what pure documentation leaves us with here is either redundant expressions of bygone standards (i.e., Young once did a lot of drugs, we learn, which was already pretty clear) or a fierce prolificacy that is also out-of-touch with the times. Young is no Leonard Cohen, no introspective poet of careful consideration; Young is as much the rough implement as he always was, comfortable with purely fortuitous appeal, and the album serves little real purpose except to arrange melodies for your sporadic enjoyment.
Take “Love and War”—which could be called the album’s centerpiece if the album were at all mapped out in a way that would enable it to have a center—on which Young informs us that he’s seen a lot of love and a lot of war but that “When I sing about love and war / I don’t really know what I’m saying.” It’s unclear if what Young means is that there is nothing sensible to be said about love and war, like Vonnegut’s “Poo-tee-weet” at the end of Slaughterhouse Five, or if he is simply privileging honesty—that he actually doesn’t know what to think about those things—and is unapologetic about it, or uninterested in why he has nothing to say. “Love and War” cannot offer any novel observations about love or war, nor does it claim to be able to as it invokes “brides” who try to “explain to their children why Daddy’s not coming home.” Beyond the occasionally mellifluous guitar line, what Young offers the listener is an itemized list of what he has seen; if you care that Young was around for love and war, then you may care about “Love and War.” There’s little there for the rest of us.
The album does possess its share of prickly guitar playing, even approaching, at times, the haunting, abandoned chords of his Dead Man soundtrack (1996) (which, in retrospect, might have been as good as it was because it was instrumental), though truth be told the album is neither all that noisy nor all that atmospheric. There are a couple of Young’s obligatory, wandering acoustic ditties to water down the already short track list, and Lanois’ soft touch seems to render antiseptic even those few moments of feedback and reverb. Those who expect some shadow of or temporary allusion to Rust Never Sleeps (1979) would do well to remember that Lanois is U2’s producer. He was considered raw for his time, but only sounds as primal here as Young, whose occasional anger is repeatedly counterbalanced by his catalogue of pleasant walks with his lady, his insistence that there are “still roses on the vine.”
Which is to say that Neil Young is entitled to write songs about his twilight years and the love of his life, but that characterizing Le Noise as a cacophonous, animal experience that speaks to Young’s relevant furies is disingenuous. It’s an aesthetic misstep, one among many, far inferior to the really noisy, really angry, still vibrant Living with War, from a man whose insistence on leaving his work unpolished—or leaving it free from the strain of sustained experimentation—is both an explanation and excuse for his frequently shitty lyrics.