||24 September 2010
Neil Young is back in the saddle, and this time he’s riding alone...Well almost.
On his latest collection of songs the iconic Canadian has employed the assistance of multi Grammy-winning producer Daniel Lanois. Lanois claims to have dedicated his life to “sonics” and the theory behind this eight-tack record was to produce a modern, bare and engaging sound to partner with Young’s legendary song-lyrics.
So there is no band of which to speak. All eight songs are, to all intents and purposes, carefully produced solo performances. The album opens with 'Walk With Me'. I immediately have a problem...
For whatever reason (and it’s my own cross to bear) I have never been able to abide the distorted strummed chord. Plucking or muting the strings while distorted is fine, and both occur to some reasonable success on tracks three and eight.
But the open strumming of distorted chords quickly becomes sandpaper to my eardrums. I do my best to repress this longstanding malady of mine, and by track three 'Rescue Me' the delicacy of Young’s voice is beginning to cut through the din.
Then comes track four...and the gentle bliss of the acoustic chord melts through the speakers. Add to that the most poignant lyrics on the album so far;
"I’ve seen a lot of young men go to war and leave a lot of young brides waiting, I’ve watched them try to explain it to their kids and seen a lot of them failing."
With the track 'Love and War' Le Noise really starts warming up fast. It’s soothing delivery belies the pain behind the message and it is as good as anything he has done in a long time.
We are then plunged back into this allegedly “new” sound where samples whirr in the background while Young’s bass-heavy distortion rumbles on.
But the quality from here on in outstrips the opening three tracks. 'Angry World' has a pleasing bassy hook to it, while 'Hitchhiker' is a song with a wry smile on its face as it recounts mistakes made and not made during a lifetime on the road. The album ultimately ends with the (nicely muted) distortion driven 'Rumblin'' that allows the toe to be tapped for the first and only time in recollection.
But the true star of the show is the penultimate song.
'Peaceful Valley Blvd.' is the album’s second acoustic track but is its most precious gem by a long way. Beautifully subtle chord changes enhance the song’s vocal triumph in an arresting mix of melancholia. Young acts as historian/witness to the “development” and death of the new North America. It is a fitting tribute, delivered impeccably, to the unending heartache of the Native American people and indeed any cultures who fell to the tyranny of “progress”.
"One day shots rang out in the peaceful valley. God was crying tears that felt like rain, before the railroad came from Kansas City, and the bullets hit the bison from the train. Those first shots rang across the valley and the white man laid his foot upon the plain."
To summarise; Young’s craft and talent wins out against what is ultimately a misfiring attempt to add a new dynamic to the solo performance. Tracks four to eight are outstanding and the highs are so splendid that they more than compensate for the dips elsewhere.
- D. Egan