Neil Young’s bulletproof status as the other ’60s rock icon you can still depend on—take a bow, Bob Dylan—has become increasingly reliant on albums boasting catchier concepts than songwriting. It’s easy to praise Young for getting fired up about the environment (Greendale), the war in Iraq (Living With War), and electric cars (Fork In The Road), but when it comes to songs, he’s been penning iffy lyrics and recycling the same by-the-numbers guitar-rumble for years. Young’s cultural engagement makes him impervious to charges of coasting, but with Le Noise, he’s once again made an album that sounds better on paper than through speakers.
Featuring eight simplistic “state of the world” songs performed alone by Young on his untamed guitar, Le Noise has been fashioned (via producer Daniel Lanois) into a chillwave record, with looped vocals and subtly applied electronics teasing the distorted, stripped-down melodies and Young’s high-and-lonesome whine. It’s basically a lo-fi Neil Young & Crazy Horse album without Crazy Horse—and Young shows he’s more than capable of kicking up a loud racket all by himself on the personal drug-taking inventory “Hitchhiker” and rampaging “Sign Of Love.”
If only Young had cranked the amps loud enough to drown out the well-intentioned but painfully on-the-nose lyrics, which hit an awkward nadir on “Peaceful Valley Blvd.,” where the 64-year-old ex-coffeehouse folkie concludes a plaintive retelling of historical calamities with the immortal line, “A child was born and wondered, ‘Why?’” The man responsible for enduring political anthems like “Ohio” and “Rockin’ In The Free World” gets a pass for similarly mawkish songs like “Love And War” and “Angry World” that don’t go any deeper than their titles. But Le Noise doesn’t deserve the same concession.