Release Date: May 27, 2014
Record label: Reprise
Genre(s): Folk, Pop/Rock, Country-Folk, Country-Rock
It can hardly have failed to escape your notice that Neil Young has recently been engaged in an argument about the need for better sound quality in the MP3 age. He has poured a great deal of his own, and indeed other people's money into the Pono system, a high-resolution digital music service, due to launch later this year, that he claims will "rescue the art form that I've practised for 50 years". It is at this point in the story that the reader should brace ourselves for a truly classic example of Neil Young being Neil Young: behaving in a manner so wilfully contrary that bafflement seems the only possible response.
Initially afforded a vinyl-only release on Jack White's Third Man Records to mark last month's Record Store Day, Neil Young's 35th album is a covers record with a difference. Young and White used a refurbished 1947 Voice-O-Graph booth to record the 11 songs here and the lo-fi production values and rudimentary instrumentation (it's mainly just Young and his guitar, with the occasional flash of harmonica or piano) make for an intensely intimate set. Without any studio trickery to distract from the songs, versions of Bert Jansch's Needle of Death and Gordon Lightfoot's If You Could Read My Mind sound particularly affecting.
Neil Young’s contrarianism remains his most dogged and persistent characteristic. In advance of Record Store Day, he teased his audience by promising a long awaited reissue of the cult classic live recording Time Fades Away, perhaps one of the most notable albums still unavailable on CD. Instead, what he actually delivered was A Letter Home, a collection of – don’t call them cover versions – works by other canonical songwriters (Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Gordon Lightfoot, Bert Jansch and Willie Nelson amongst others), recorded in single takes in a voice-o-graph machine belonging to Jack White.
During the 2014 promo campaign for Pono, his high-end digital audio device, Neil Young called his forthcoming album A Letter Home "an art project," which is an appropriate term for this curious collection of covers from his contemporaries. It's not so much that the choice of songs is unusual -- nearly all of them are from the '60s and '70s, years when Young was also active, but a handful ("Crazy," "Since I Met You Baby," "I Wonder If I Care as Much") date from the late '50s or early '60s -- but the recording method. Young headed down to Jack White's Third Man Records in Nashville where Jack installed a refurbished Voice-O-Graph booth, a device designed to allow a user to "Make Your Own Record" by cutting a song or message directly to vinyl.
Neil Young has spent the past few months making moves on something he's been passionately preaching about for a while now: studio-quality audio made accessible to the masses. From the looks of things, Pono seems to be the most practical application of Young's audio purism to date. He's been a loud critic of the mp3 and digital audio degradation for years, and he's embraced expensive and clunky listening formats to ensure that listeners are getting the best possible sound quality.
Earlier this year, Neil Young unveiled Pono, a super-high-def audio service meant to deliver us from the sonic crimes of the earbud era. For his next act, he's released an acoustic covers set recorded at Jack White's Nashville music shop on a Voice-O-Graph--a super-low-def 1940s contraption that looks like a phone booth and sounds a few steps removed from a rusty tin can and some twine. If it's meant as some kind of joke, here's the punch line: In its perverse way, A Letter Home is one of the most enjoyable records Young has made this century.
Neil Young has always been eccentric, but A Letter Home is his kookiest idea yet. Recorded in Jack White's 1947 Voice-O-Graph recording booth (not much bigger than a phone booth), the album crackles and pops through 11 lo-fi covers - mostly from the 60s - and two spoken intros addressed to Young's deceased mom. The songs are old, and the album sounds really old.
The more you look at it, Neil Young’s crusade for quality digital music with PONO seems less about fidelity and more about preservation, about purity. This is a man who loves old cars, who loves model trains, who loves doing things his own, stubborn way. Young’s clear vision for his work (and music in general) and his contrarianism have served him well.
Neil YoungA Letter Home(Reprise Records/Third Man)3 out of 5 stars If you haven’t already figured out that Neil Young operates on his own special wavelength, his new covers album A Letter Home should drive that notion home for you. Not only did Young suddenly make the album available for sale on his website without any advance notice, he recorded the thing on something called a Voice-O-Graph, a vintage, phone-booth like recording station. Oh, and he starts the album off by reading a letter to his dead mother.
Neil Young drew famous levels of scorn in the 1980s for a series of jarring and short-lived genre exercises, and yet his recorded output since 2002 reflects a fairly similar pattern. Maybe the lengthier breaks between albums breed forgiveness — or maybe we’ve grown accustomed to the artist’s more impulsive tendencies. I think it’s both. I won’t pretend I often revisit hasty one-offs like Greendale (2003), an inscrutable rock opera, or Fork in the Road (2009), an electric car tribute record as sloppy as its album art.
To say my eyebrows were raised to the point of nearly flying straight off my skull and embedding directly into the ceiling of the 87 bus upon first listening to A Letter Home would barely be an understatement. There's been an onslaught of anti-mp3 propaganda that’s been spewing from the Neil Young camp of late - adorning the pages of his 2012 autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, spilling over into the lyrics on Psychedelic Pill that same year (“don’t want my mp3”), and quite literally kickstarting his Pono project with over $6 million raised via crowdfunding. So recording his next solo album on a vintage Voice-O-Graph machine from 1947 with similar sonic capabaiities to a couple of baked bean tins linked by string, was the very last thing we expected.
Neil Young’s much-ballyhooed digital-music player, Pono, wrapped up a Kickstarter campaign in mid-April, having earned $6.22m on the promise of providing mind-bendingly good, analogue-quality lossless digital audio. A Letter Home is an endearingly crackly covers set recorded to one-track mono in a restored 1947 Voice-O-Graph booth refurbished down at Jack White’s Third Man studios. Sorry, you want consistency? This is Neil Young.
Neil Young — A Letter Home (Reprise)You know you’re not a kid anymore when you hear that line from The Tempest, “my every third thought shall be my grave,” and realize that you and Prospero are on the same page. Past a certain point in life, how can you not think of other people’s deaths and your own?Neil Young is definitely not a kid. The youth who strove for wisdom beyond his years when he wrote “Old Man” has become one.
The anemic state of the music industry frequently raises suspicions about gimmicks and marketing ploys, and if not for the reputations of its creators—Neil Young and Jack White—that’s how A Letter Home might sound on paper. Recorded using a 1947 vinyl recording booth, A Letter Home risks putting process ahead of the listening experience, sacrificing fidelity for a cute narrative. Though White’s decade-long hunt for a Voice-O-Graph and its painstaking 18-month refurbishment are admirable, does that make up for the crackle and hum of the machine’s single-track recordings, or the occasional warping of Young’s iconically frail vocals? And beyond that, is there really a need to re-record songs that are either so iconic (Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown,” Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again” and “Crazy”) or over-represented (Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Only Read My Mind,” Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe”) that their lyrical weight has been rendered mostly meaningless? The answer to both is a convincing yes, though a willingness to accept the collection on White and Young’s terms is crucial to getting anything out of A Letter Home.
Over the last decade, Neil Young has presented an overwhelming volume of studio albums, concert films, archival live recordings, free-form improvised guitar excursions, charity fundraisers, books, rants against modern sound-compression technology, boxed sets and Kickstarter campaigns for high-quality digital audio players. His creative spigot never seems to close. In the 50 years since he released his first recordings, though, Young, 68, hasn't until now sat himself down in a 1940s-era Voice-o-Graph recording booth in front of a single microphone and, with the help of Jack White in his Nashville studio and "ancient electro mechanical technology," recorded a dozen favorite songs using a similar method as did early artists nearly a century ago.
“The CD should be five dollars and the LP should be seven, not 17 and 22,” commented a friend of mine who owns a record shop to a post of mine on Facebook about Neil Young’s A Letter Home. “At least Neil completists wouldn’t feel totally ripped off.” He does make an incredibly valid point. Originally released on vinyl via Jack White’s Third Man label, Young’s latest solo album saw old Neil cut 11 of his favorite songs inside the only known functional Voice-O-Graph booth in the world located at Third Man in Nashville.