A few weeks ago, Neil Young borrowed a page from the Beyonce playbook, and surprised fans by releasing his new album with little fanfare. Adding to the mystery, the album was initially sold exclusively through Jack White’s Third Man Records website, and made available only in vinyl format.
A more traditional CD release, along with what is best described as a questionable deluxe boxed set, will be out in record stores later this month. This being Neil Young of course, the unorthodox distribution and out-of-nowhere arrival of A Letter Home only begins to scratch the surface of the quirky oddness associated with this interesting, but equally strange and perplexing new record.
For starters, the album consists entirely of non-original songs first recorded by other artists, making this Neil Young’s second album of covers in just under two years, following 2012’s Americana (with Crazy Horse). It was also recorded in an old-fashioned record booth – specifically, the Voice-O-Graph located at Jack White’s Third Man Records.
For the uninitiated, this is quite literally, a telephone booth where you can also record yourself. Think of something like an audio counterpart to those old-fashioned novelty photo booths you see at rural county fairs, roadside attractions and the occasional Walmart. As a recording space, it’s just about big enough to fit Neil Young and his acoustic guitar.
This album does also include some piano though. I’m still scratching my head trying to figure out how they pulled that one off.
Because of its decidedly low-tech quality (a sharp contrast to the PONO recording technology that he is coincidentally also currently promoting), at first blush, A Letter Home comes across as either the most organic sounding recording Neil Young has made in ages, or simply the latest in a long line of ill-advised genre experiments. On a few initial listens at least, you have to ask the question:
Is this Neil Young’s Nebraska or his most ridiculous blunder since the Shocking Pinks?
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. When the album works – as it surprisingly often does – the pops and cracks heard throughout, on songs like Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain,” lend themselves to a weird, yet warm sort of ambiance. What comes most immediately to mind are the ancient blues and folk recordings one normally would expect to find on those original Folkways recordings stored somewhere deep within the Smithsonian.
Neil also does a nice job of lovingly recapturing the harmonizing magic of the Everly Brothers here on “I Wonder If I Care As Much.” The love letters from Neil to his Mom are also the sort of nice sentimental Hallmark touch, that comes just in time for Mothers Day.
But nowhere does this approach work better, than on the late Bert Jansch’s “Needle Of Death.” More than anything else on this album, Neil Young kills it here, with a version that comes across as both reverent and revealing. Neil Young’s admiration for Jansch has long been a matter of public record – he has been often quoted in interviews saying that this song was the inspiration for his own “Ambulance Blues.”
Hearing Neil Young cover this song in the most stripped-to-the-bone version imaginable, that connection becomes unmistakable.
Unfortunately, and despite what appear to be good intentions on Neil Young’s part, much of the rest of A Letter Home falls disappointingly short of the mark. His attempt at Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown” sounds every bit as forced and contrived as anything from the infamously bad faux-rockabilly of Everybody’s Rockin’. And just how Neil Young managed to stuff the clunky barroom sounding piano heard on Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again” and Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe” into Jack White’s Voice-O-Graph phono-booth remains a mystery for the ages, perhaps best left to late night cable TV.
Speaking of which, Neil Young and Jack White are both scheduled as guests this Monday night on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. One can only hope for a duet with Neil Young, and well, you know “Neil Young.”[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00JT3F5VI]