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."