Neil Young and a guitar — nothing could be simpler, right?
But in Young’s world, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.
The well-traveled rock iconoclast is on the road these days with a solo show, which in the past has meant Young, a circle of acoustic guitars and maybe a keyboard or two — including a pump organ. But this time out he’s also slinging an electric guitar over his shoulder, the product of his latest album, “Le Noise,” a collaboration with producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris) that features eight songs played by Young alone but is hardly some unplugged troubadour set.
“I had the vision of it being a solo recording,” Young, 65, explains, “and then I called Dan and asked him to help me. And then it evolved from being solo acoustic into being solo electric, and once we heard the electric, we couldn’t stop, and we started developing and found how much we can do with it.”
For “Le Noise” — the title is a play on Lanois’ surname and the name of his home studio in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood — the two Canadians employed a variety of production techniques — including two separate amplifiers for the bass and treble strings — and an array of effects, loops, textures and tonalities to make just one man sound like a minion. Receiving mostly positive reviews, it was named the No. 2 album of the year by Britain’s Uncut magazine and placed No. 20 on Rolling Stone’s year-end poll.
It also debuted at No. 14 on the Billboard 200 when it was released last September, and No. 2 on the Canadian chart.
Lanois, meanwhile, says the transition from acoustic to electric “was not a deliberate move or anything. Young was able to go off and write some additional songs, and I think there was a subconscious force at play that brought this material to the table for us.”
The epiphanous moment, according to Young, was “Hitchhiker,” an autobiographical song he started writing in 1975 and has performed intermittently throughout his career. Returning to his hotel room one night after an early recording session with Lanois — all were done during full moons or new moons — he decided to revisit the song, and after adding a chord and changing the arrangement a bit, he had something he felt was worthy of the album.
“Then I thought to myself, ‘This is definitely going to be better electric than acoustic ... ’cause it is a rock ‘n’ roll song.’ So we tried it, and it sounded really interesting and really good and strong,” recalls the two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee — with Buffalo Springfield and as a solo artist — who also had a short-lived tenure at Motown in 1966 with a group called the Mynah Birds and frontman Ricky James Mathews, who later became Rick James. A month later, on the next full moon, Young returned to the studio with his white Falcon, a guitar that has stereo pickups to separate the bass and treble signals and “gave Dan more to work with than a mono guitar.”
They recorded the album-opening song “Walk With Me,” and Young says, “that kind of opened the door for us.”
“I felt freedom from that,” he continues. “There’s no band in the way. There’s no bass; the guitar was doing the bass and doing the rhythm, and I was playing the figure and singing the song. It kind of sounded like a band, anyway, and then Dan just went to town with it and we kept doing it over and over again — write another song for the white Falcon, do two (songs) a month for three or four months, and we got it done.”
“Le Noise” is hardly the first time Young has ventured into ambitious and experimental territory, of course. He’s made plenty of straightforward hard rock and folk rock during his 45-year recording career, but he’s also kept fans, critics and cohorts on their toes with excursions into country, blues, rockabilly, electronic and outright noise — always following his muse and oblivious to expectations.
“Simply put, (Young’s) a great songwriter,” says Lanois, who was “just happy with this invitation to record him” and had no pre-set notion about the kind of album they’d make.
“I think he responded to his environment and the excitement of the team we have,” Lanois explains. “There was a subconscious fore at play that brought his material to the table for us. There was a sort of domino effect of nice compositions coming in.”
Taking the electric route, however, did not affect the actual writing process, Young says.
“You just have confidence it’s going to work, because it worked before,” Young notes. “It’s gonna sound good. The guitar’s going to sound like God. Everything’s there. I just wrote the songs, and Dan liked the hooks and the riffs I built the songs on, so that prompted me to write more riffs and more figures like that to spur him to be more creative with his dubs and everything and give him the freedom to work and do what he does.
“So that’s what we did. We kept on basically cheering for each other to keep doing the things we liked in each other.”
Young was also excited by “a visual element to this program,” making a video for each “Le Noise” song with Lanois associate Adam Vollick. The “short films” were posted online leading up to and following the album’s release and were subsequently included on deluxe and Blu-ray editions of “Le Noise.”
“We’ve been developing this simple philosophy that as the magic moment is unfolding musically, let the lens capture it with one camera ... That’s a rare occurrence and commodity,” Lanois explains. “I think Neil picked up on the fact that we’ve been at this for a while and we cared about our work ... and we care about Neil and we want to make sure he gets the best for him to run with.”
And if that wasn’t enough, “Le Noise” was also released as an app that Young says “is based on my ‘Archives’ Blu-ray set” with a variety of interactive extras including original lyric manuscripts, photos, a career timeline and other features. “What it does,” Young says, “is bring you back to the album cover experience we used to get when the album cover was something tangible and big enough to actually read and see. I think that’s key to making an album an experience again instead of just something to download.”
Young, as is his wont, has given his fans even more since “Le Noise” came out. He released another entry in his “Archives” series, “Dreamin’ Man Live ’92” from a solo acoustic show, and has yet another one — “A Treasure” from his 1984-85 country tours — slated for June 7. He also reunited with Buffalo Springfield for a performance at his Bridge School Benefit Concerts in October that’s led to seven dates in June and a more extensive tour slated for the fall.
“Neil’s kind of amazing that way,” Lanois says. “He does something, and does it great, and then he’s off and running to something else, like, the minute he’s finished. It’s perpetual motion, and I’m just happy I could be a stop on his journey.”
Neil Young and Bert Jansch perform at 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 4, at the Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tickets are sold out. Call 313-471-6611 or visit www.olympiaentertainment.com.
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