Release Date: May 27, 2014
“What the hell?!?” is an appropriate first response to Neil Young’s A Letter Home. Not for its content: Echoing Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait, Young covers 11 songs that mean a lot to him with tender, unfeigned affection. Less straightforward is how they’re presented. Young cut the mostly solo acoustic performances at Jack White’s lo-fi Voice-O-Graph recording booth in Nashville, producing a finished product akin to a beat-up 78 rpm record, pockmarked by constant pops, hissing and distortion. He could have added skips to complete the effect.
Young always has a reason for what he does, however eccentric his actions seem at first. Whether championing clean auto propulsion technology via his LincVolt project or founding the hi-res music service Pono, he’s keenly sensitive to the ramifications of the medium he’s employing. Long critical of digital sound’s limitations, he wants listeners to feel the effort that went into the heartfelt, tattered renditions on A Letter Home, rather than regard them as weightless, easily deleted files.
While he achieves that worthy goal, nothing is simple with Neil. A Letter Home is punctuated by spoken-word segments addressed to his late mother. In one, he laments global warming. In another, he explains that he’s singing rediscovered songs he used to play in Winnipeg growing up. But only some tunes precede Young’s real-life odyssey to California in search of fame in the mid-’60s – the most recent, Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown,” is from 1984 – making the album an imagined history, not an accurate memoir.
Regardless, Neil’s performances are mostly stellar, especially on Gordon Lightfoot’s bedraggled “Early Mornin’ Rain” (also on Self Portrait, fyi), Tim Hardin’s melancholy “Reason to Believe,” with its wobbly barroom piano, and his high lonesome take on the Everly Brothers’ “I Wonder If I Care as Much,” complete with wailing harmonies from White.
A Letter Home began life as a standalone vinyl release on White’s Third Man label. Now it’s spawned an absurdly elaborate box set including a CD, DVD, book, seven six-inch vinyl records and, crucially, vinyl of a cleaner-sounding “direct feed from the booth” audiophile version, which lacks the fake-old effects of the standard version. Once you’ve heard the undoctored edition of Bert Jansch’s heartbreaking “Needle of Death,” a harrowing tale of self-destruction by heroin predating Young’s own “The Needle and the Damage Done,” the noisier approach feels like needless gimmickry that diminishes, rather than enhances, one of his strongest sets in a long time.