Neil Young, left, and record producer Daniel Lanois worked on the new album,… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)
WOODSIDE, Calif. —It's a pronounced climb up a winding road to the hilltop restaurant where Neil Young and Daniel Lanois have ensconced themselves for an afternoon to talk about their singular new collaboration, "Le Noise."
Sitting on an enclosed deck 2,000 feet above the San Francisco Bay to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, this pair of newfound musical kindred spirits can gaze out into a dense grove of towering coastal redwoods. The air is thick with the rich scent of natural mulch and moss; the remote quiet is broken only occasionally, if jarringly, by the roar of a passing motorcycle.
This location seems less the result of coincidence than design: It's a geographical counterpart to the rarefied musical ground Young and Lanois have staked out together through the eight songs that make up "Le Noise."
"Very early on," Lanois said, "I realized that my favorite songs of this project all had a message. And I invented this idea that he had just come down from the mountaintop and he had the tablets with him. So I said, 'Neil, what's the message?'"
There are many. In various songs, Young mourns the loss of close friends — this year alone, that's included filmmaker Larry "L.A." Johnson and steel guitarist Ben Keith — and offers up thanks for those who remain within the tight-knit circle he's kept for much of his life; questions the country and the world outside that circle; and yearns for inner understanding that he still finds elusive even with nearly 65 years behind him.
Indefinable revolution is the undercurrent in the album's closing track, "Rumblin'," one of several politically minded songs in which Young now seems more concerned with asking the right questions than attempting to shove answers down anyone's throat.
"Something's going on right now," said Young, seated next to Lanois at one of the restaurant's white-clothed tables. "We're in the middle of a huge change or turnaround, but I don't know really what it is. But you can feel that something's going on. We've had enough of whatever it was. People have had enough of it. They've seen it over and over again. It defies real description of what's really going on. We won't know for a little while."
Young speaks softly and evenly, his hazel eyes revealing a hint of curiosity about what may be coming next. In Lanois' company, he's upbeat, even playful at times, but ever attentive to the task at hand. At one point, he breezes past a photographer who's being introduced to him without turning his head or batting an eye.
"Le Noise" is technically a solo recording, just Young and one guitar — an electric instrument on six, an acoustic on the other two, recorded live with no overdubs, no Crazy Horse, no Crosby, Stills, Nash or any of the other pals who've often accompanied Young over the last four decades. But he's found a band's worth of assistance from Lanois, who thickens, deepens, amplifies, echoes, magnifies and otherwise enhances the basics of what Young picked, strummed and slashed during recording sessions at the producer's home in Silver Lake.
Young, outfitted rock-veteran comfortable in a weathered straw fedora, a black T-shirt, military green jacket, faded blue jeans and black western boots, elucidated the ways that Lanois has sliced, diced, julienned and reconfigured the live performances that Young laid down. The effect reaches well beyond the sonic atmospherics the seven-time Grammy-winning producer wove into highly regarded albums he's made with U2, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel and Emmylou Harris.
"It's one guy singing and playing," Young said, "except it's decomposing and falling apart and all the pieces are coming back upside-down and huge and small and blown up and coming back and being mixed back in with where they came from. It's like you throw all the pieces up in the air and run through and they all stick to you. But the pieces he chose to do this with, that's the magic."
A lifelong believer in the nexus of film and rock music who has enlisted filmmakers Jim Jarmusch and Jonathan Demme to direct some of his concert movies, Young was drawn to team up with Lanois after viewing several atmospheric, black-and-white YouTube videos of Lanois' own band, Black Dub. He invited Lanois to record and film him working on a solo album. Although they began with an acoustic guitar that Lanois had specially prepared for Young with enhanced sonic capabilities, they quickly switched the primary focus to the electric guitar.
"Everybody associates 'acoustic' with 'solo,'" Young said. "But once we heard solo electric, we started associating electric with solo.... The reason why it seems so original is because it has a perimeter. It's enclosed. It's like a wild animal in a corral. No other animals can get to it, and it can't get out to the other animals. So you're dealing with this one thing: the electric guitar. Not 10 electric guitars and a bunch of overdubs; just one performance with one guitar."