Neil Young calls his new album with producer Daniel Lanois “folk-metal,” and the description is pretty apt. “Le Noise” (Reprise) was recorded with just voice and guitar, but Lanois’ sonic treatments make it sound as epic as the Grand Canyon.
Young’s voice, still a thing of spectral (if highly unconventional) beauty in its high, lonesome transparency, is intimate, confiding. He’s tackling deep subjects: the death of the planet, of soldiers in inexplicable conflicts, of the soul itself as it is degraded by drugs, failed love, time.
“I made a mistake, then I did it again,” Young sings. No sugar-coating for this guy. He’s 64, and he’s in no mood for idle chit-chat or warm, fuzzy illusions.
“Hitchhiker” is a brutal litany of a life lived on a ledge, a string of bad drugs and bad decisions redeemed only by the love of wife and family. “My head did explode,” Young sings in one of his most chilling narratives.
That singular voice is surrounded by a cocoon of what sounds like a small orchestra of instruments. It’s remarkable to think that it was all made by one sonically enhanced guitar, but one needn’t know that to appreciate the sound pouring out of the speakers. Though the album is at heart a series of small performances, easily adaptable to a living room or coffee house, it has all the scope of a wide-screen movie. In “Walk With Me,” one of the very best performances of Young’s career, thick, crashing chords give way to a cascading, wordless vocal – as if a hymn had suddenly broken out in the middle of a war zone.
The album is full of those kind of unexpected juxtapositions, a stunning statement from an artist who shows no signs of slowing down.