Let’s be honest, the very prospect of the legendary Neil Young coming out with a covers record was always going to be an exciting one. Yet as Canada’s finest enters his 46th year as an internationally beloved recording artist, as always, he’s got a curved-ball to throw in the form of A Letter Home – a 12 track collection of songs by everyone from Bob Dylan to Bert Jansch to the Bruce Springsteen, that have no doubt shaped Neil to be one of the most humble and prolific artists of the last half century. You’re already sold, right? Try adding to this the one-two punch of kitsch/cool of recording the album in a refurbished 1940’s phone-booth known as a Voice-O-Graph where the performance given is cut to vinyl in real-time. Oh, did we mention that this particular Voice-O-Graph was lovingly restored by Jack White and lives in his Nashville studio/record store Third Man Records? Did we also mention that this entire record is a two-man operation between Young and White (who produced and appears on two of the songs)? Sounds enticing huh.
From the spoken intro track onwards (wherein Neil sweetly pleads for harmony between his late parents), the intimacy of this kind of record is only reinforced by the approach taken in cutting it (literally!). There are no second chances, no “let’s-go-back-and-punch-that-in”, no “we-can-fix-that-in-the-mix”; A performance is what it is and it’s either good enough, or it isn’t. Thankfully, being that this is a Neil Young record, chances were pretty high that it was going to be more than good enough. The fragility of the scratchy, ancient recording technology only goes to show that an artist like Young – who’s spent the last few years passionately campaigning for the highest possible quality digital recordings to be accessible to the average listener – can still cut the mustard when audio technology is working against him.
The lo-fi charm might be a bit much for some to swallow considering the psychedelic sonic adventurousness of much of Young’s back catalogue, but if you just want to hear a man singing songs he loves, fans and audiophiles (like the man himself) alike will quickly forgive A Letter Home’s technical shortcomings in favour of the bigger picture. There’s a certain type of purity in eschewing all the bells and whistles to just “sing a song” and this brings out a sense of childlike wonder in the now 68-year-old that probably couldn’t have been captured any other way.
As he excitedly mentions in various spoken interludes throughout, these are the songs he played starting out in rural Ontario and to this end, The Maple Leaf is proudly flown on a pair of Gordon Lightfoot tunes – Early Morning Rain and If You Could Read My Mind (The latter of which Millenials may remember from the 1998 Stars on 54 disco cover for the Mike Myers/Salma Hayek film 54). Songs like Dylan’s timeless Girl From The North Country and Springsteen’s My Hometown are reverently re-appropriated to paint gorgeous sepia images of Young’s childhood in Winnipeg, Ontario and instead of sounding like two of the world’s biggest rock-stars in a room together, Jack White’s piano and tasteful harmonies on Willie Nelson’s On The Road Again and the Everly Brothers’ I Wonder If I Care as Much sound like two old buddies in the corner of a lonely honky-tonk playing like no-one is listening.
Overall, A Letter Home is a really beautiful concept for a record with the kind of shaky, everyman execution that has endeared Neil Young to fans the world over for nearly 50 years now. Not to say for a second that the 38 albums (That’s right, 38!) he’s released prior to this lack heart, but for the first time it seems that Neil has finally gotten to the absolute core of what music is all about for a lot of people and the results are beautifully personal. This being said, Neil only knows what’s in store for album #40 but in the meantime, we can just bask in one of the most unguarded albums he’s ever released and wait patiently in the knowledge that it’ll be excellent.