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Neil Young’s “Le Noise” & “Ordinary People”

Published in Blog Archive, Culture Bully. Tags: , .

“There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen.

In 2007 I wrote an essay that’s about as long-winded as its title: “A Sustainable Future, Neil Young’s ‘Ordinary People’ and the Beauty of Coincidence.” Essentially it touches on a rocky time in my life which led me to a series of small coincidences that gave me a bit of perspective on everything; perspective: hard to find, even harder to hold on to.

It’s not so much that “Ordinary People” strictly depicts a world where people survive by offering others their spoon, of sorts, but rather it offers an outlook suggesting there can be betterment if only one is given a positive outlook and a sense of humanity in the face of our every day obstacles.

Looking back, this paragraph reads like an excerpt from a half-witted Tony Robbins speech; but even so, I still believe it to be true, and I feel it relates to Neil Young‘s new album.

Next week Neil Young will be releasing Le Noise, his second album in two years and fifth since being diagnosed with a brain aneurysm in 2005. Just think of all the tribulations Young has overcome… and after standing tall he almost died because of something like that: It’s enough to leave even the strongest among us struggling to find the remotest sense of hope. But even after complications followed the surgery, Neil Young remained alive. Let me try that again, Neil Young is still alive and in the years which followed he has proven to be as passionate as ever. How’s that for hope?

The Daniel Lanois-produced album captures Young recording in an old mansion in Los Angeles without the assist from a band. Just recently the legend released a pair of unusually dark music videos for “Angry World” and “Hitchhiker” which complement the setting, each capturing the bleakness of the minimal California set-up. Lyrically “Angry World” straddles a line between optimism and darkness while the latter offers a humbling tale of endless addiction and the loneliness and remorse that goes right along with it. The track which precedes the two on the album, “Love and War,” is a sobering tale that momentarily appears fitting to accompany 2006′s Living With War before taking on an uncharacteristically defeatist tone, “When I sing about love and war, I don’t really know what I’m sayin’, I’ve been in love and I’ve seen a lot of war, I’ve seen a lot of people prayin’.” The entire collection does well to follow suit, coming in odd contrast to Young’s last few records. NPR‘s Bob Boilen recently explained the shift in direction,

For the album, Young wrote eight new songs — some autobiographical and some about loss, specifically the loss of friends such as steel guitarist and core band member Ben Keith. There was also the passing of filmmaker Larry Johnson, whom Young met at Woodstock, and who worked with on Young’s film ‘Journey Through the Past’. Some songs are political: “Love and War” is a reflection on writing about the titular topics so many times for so many years.

The grim overtones that are woven throughout Le Noise aside, the infrequent rays of sunshine are not easily outweighed. Take for instance, again, “Hitchhiker”: despite the song’s crippling bleakness, its final lines offer something so much more powerful than any of the recollected tales of dismay, “How many years are come and gone like friends and enemies/I’ve tried to leave my past behind, but it’s catching up with me/I don’t know how I’m standing here living my life/I’m thankful for my children and my faithful wife.”

Young, yourself, all of us: who knows how long any of us are meant for this world. In all honesty, we’re all just a fluke aneurysm away from calling it a day. I can’t speak for the man, but I imagine that Neil Young doesn’t want to die—I know that I most certainly don’t want to die—and it’s my hope that you don’t want to die. And if there’s one thing that I know I can rely on while I’m still on this side of the grave it’s the perspective I gained in part from “Ordinary People” (though as I did mention, many times it is really hard to hold onto). This is why I think the song is important when thinking about Le Noise: Even if you’re riding a series of thoughts and emotions that touch on the darkest parts of the human experience, you have to do your damnedest to keep that positive outlook and sense of humanity in mind, and remind yourself of what exactly it is you’re still thankful for. Like Young, if you have children and a wife, I hope you’re thankful for them. If you have a husband, I hope you’re thankful for him. If you have parents or friends or siblings or an annoying little bijon shih tzu that refuses to stop barking at all hours of the morning: I hope you’re thankful for each and every one of ‘em. That’s what I’m taking away from Le Noise.

If you have the time, please take a moment and leave a comment about what it is that you’re thankful for. Call it a pre-Thanksgiving thanks-session. It’s not going to hurt to take a moment and do so, and who knows, someone else reading might really need to be reminded of what it is that they’re thankful for, and why it’s not better to burn out than fade away.

[This post was first published by Culture Bully.]