The road spools off from the freeway south of San Francisco, then climbs into the hills overlooking the Pacific. The way narrows and darkens, as stands of coastal evergreens coalesce into a mossy forest that fractures the afternoon light into steep dramatic shafts. The road dips, and to one side there's a large wooden cabin standing in a shallow clearing. A sign on the door reads: Private Party.
There's no party inside, just two guys sitting at a table in an empty restaurant of dark wood trimmed with iron and brass. Neil Young and Daniel Lanois have already done all the private get-togethers that really count: the series of full-moon recording sessions in Los Angeles that resulted in Young's new album, Le Noise.
Finding them together, close collaborators for the first time, is a bit like discovering that two great planets have unexpectedly swung into parallel orbits. Young is Canada's most successful and influential rock musician, who has relentlessly followed his own course through four decades and some 60 albums, including classic discs with Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Lanois, who began recording local bands in his mother's basement in Ancaster, Ont., 40 years ago, is one of the world's most sophisticated and musical record producers, best-known for his work on transformative albums by the likes of U2 and Bob Dylan. You'd expect that a joint Young/Lanois album would be something special, and you'd be right: Le Noise is a richly formed collection that redefines yet again the scope of Young's music.
Strictly speaking, it's a solo album, in that Young is the only performer. But as he made clear during The Globe's exclusive Canadian print interview, it was Lanois (whose surname is affectionately burlesqued in the disc's title) who conjured from Young's voice and guitar the disc's intricate, resonant representation of a virtual band of one, the sound of which may surprise even those who have followed Young's many previous stylistic evolutions.
"Why have I not heard that on other records?" Young said, posing what sounds like a favourite question. Try to think of another prominent rock musician of his vintage (he'll be 65 in November) who can honestly claim that as a guiding principle.
In conversation, Young was a striking combination of shyness and flinty determination. He spoke quietly, but underlined several comments with a penetrating stare from under the brim of an old panama with a crack in its crown. He wore blue jeans and a faded cargo jacket over a black T-shirt - at-home clothes, you might say, and in fact we were only about 20 minutes away from his California ranch.
"I called Dan because I needed help," he said. "I just wanted to write, sing and play, do something real simple. That's what it ended up being, but it doesn't sound simple."
There's nothing in his lengthy discography quite like the last half of Walk With Me, the single that reached Canadian radio two weeks ago. From a deep, dense open chord, an almost arrhythmic swirl of sound carries scraps of Young's vocals into remote octaves, scattering them across a thick mélange of sounds that finally subsides into a lilting, looping rhythm that's like a hypnotically sped-up version of the main groove. It's fresh and unexpected, yet it feels entirely organic.
"We built dubs from pieces of the songs, from the tones and rhythm figures," Young said. "We captured things, zoomed in on them, changed the octave they're in, brought them to the front. But it's all the same information, it's all right there in the original song, the original performances."
Lanois took Young to his studio in a grand old house in Los Angeles, and closed the door to all other musicians and external sound sources. Then he began to play with what Young was doing in front of the microphone, manipulating scraps of sound, making dubs, creating a sound world in which everything could flow and morph into everything else.
"I could feel it coming," Young said, "I said, "Do as much of that as you feel like doing. Something's there, just go, go, go."
For Lanois, making Le Noise was a bit like taking on voluntarily the kind of constraints imposed by poverty on the pioneers of Jamaican dub. "They had very limited tools, and created great spin echoes, and developed an entire form with very little equipment," he said, looking remarkably fit for a man of 59 still on the mend from a serious motorcycle accident in June. He was tightly clad in a black-leather jacket, with a growth of salt-and-pepper beard and a straw brimmed hat pulled low on his brow.
He has a well-deserved reputation as a virtuoso producer, but in this case his kit was relatively simple. He used only three or four treatment boxes on the whole album, he said, producing other effects through simple but inventive use of standard equipment.
"You don't get the impression Neil's being pounced upon by overdubs," Lanois said. "It's an extraction from an already-existing, wonderful cloth. We just reintroduced it back into the tapestry in a magnified weave."
Not surprisingly, one of the main figures in the tapestry is Young's guitar, both acoustic and electric. The guitar sounds are so rich and varied on Le Noise that at times the album seems like an eight-part love song to an instrument grown larger than life - though there's not a guitar solo on the whole record.
"The guitar was so much a part of the soul of it," Young said. "It was front and centre, and there's a lot of room to hear it, because there was nothing in the way. Daniel could work all of his magic and put all his genius sounds together. I'd take a song to him, and sing him three verses, and play rhythm figures for a long time, and suddenly a bunch of things would start growing out of it. It's like a garden, it's all there, he can take it and do whatever he wants with it. We kept watering it and it kept growing."
That flowering of possibilities seemed to flow into Young's songwriting. Each time they convened "the all-Canadian band" (as he called the quartet of himself, Lanois, engineer Mark Howard and videographer Adam Vollick, whose short videos will appear on the deluxe CD and Blu-ray versions of the album) for another full-moon session, Young had more new songs, spanning the most personal and public sides of his work.
Le Noise follows a real emotional road map, beginning with a trilogy of songs (all founded on a heavy tonic D) about the kind of hard-won security that comes from knowing that at least one person in the world will always love and shelter you. Walk With Me and Sign of Love are both celebrations of conjugal love, from the point of view of a man who has lived to see the day when "we both have silver hair, and a little less time."
From there, the record swerves into uncertainty and dread, through songs about environmental degradation (the long, mournful elegy, Peaceful Valley Boulevard) and free-floating rage and division ( Angry World, in which Young's sometimes sarcastic account finally shatters into flecks of vocal sound too short to be heard as words). There's also the long-gestating drug diary of Hitchhiker, a song Young started writing some 35 years ago.
"It always felt like an unfinished song to me," he said, of a tune he has performed in concert, but never recorded till now. "I never felt good about where it ended up, it never got to the thankful part, where you feel, 'I made it, I made it this far.' I changed some of the chords under the same melody, so the melody felt different, and a few things just settled into place.
"That story is a metaphor for a lot of things," he said, "The drugs themselves, and different periods of growth and struggle, and trying to attain something, and running into things like paranoia and loss. And also discovery, and open water."
Hitchhiker also opened the door for the record's electric side, Lanois said, and set a standard for a type of vocal delivery. "It has a sense of urgency in it," he said. "and it touches people, beyond the testimonial and autobiographical aspects of Neil's story."
Young seems to turn a critical eye on his own public statements in Love and War, singing that "I don't really know what I'm saying" on either subject, and confessing that "I sang for justice and hit a bad chord." But there's no apology: "I said a lot of things I can't take back," he sings, "Don't know if I wanna." The point seems to be to press on, to keep trying for a better result. Similarly, there's a streak of recuperative optimism in the final Rumblin', the album's most prophetic statement, and in some ways, its most humble ("when will I learn how to give back?" he sings).
The sonic environment is different for each song, in part because Young set up in different rooms of the house for different tunes, recording everything full volume to get full intensity. And though much of the record is grounded in two main key zones (D and E), he tweaked his guitar tunings in different ways for five of the songs, to vary the tonal colour. For Angry World, he hit on a detuning he'd never used before, entering a zone where familiar chord fingerings produced weirdly new results. But he sees even stranger developments on his horizon.
"We've got the sounds, the pictures, the production, the dubs, the lyrics, the music and the voice," he said. "I guess the only other part of this band that we don't have, is the part that could be played by the Internet guy. We haven't met this guy yet, and we don't know if we could control him. I wouldn't like to put him in a box, but yeah, somebody's got to play the Internet. Everybody's using it, everybody knows what it is. But there's another element to this being, this social element that we haven't explored yet. It could be friendly, it could reach out and interact with us. I don't know really how it would work, but there's something there."
Whatever happens when the Internet guy shows up, Young has found a direction for the future. To hear him talk about it, Le Noise may mark a turning point in his career.
"It's fun to listen to, it doesn't sound contrived, it just sounds new," he said. "Very zoomed in. A door has opened, and I love it. I'll continue writing, knowing that I can do this."
As part of Nuit Blanche, Daniel Lanois presents a film and music spectacle, Later That Night at the Drive-in, at Toronto's Nathan Phillips Square Saturday night.