Bewildered First Impressions: Neil Young, “A Letter Home”

neilIt’s easy to slag A Letter Home for being less an album, more a gimmick—and a gimmick it is, at least in part: Analog fetishists Neil Young and Jack White teamed up to cut an entire record in an old-time recording booth, the kind that was once common at fairs and amusement parks; the booths beckoned rubes to record their own brief aural snapshots—cutting their own vinyl records, most of which were devoted to spoken-word remembrances, jokes, and other novelty communiqués. Here, Young holed up in this tiny booth—barely large enough to fit him and his acoustic guitar—to perform covers of songs by Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, Willie Nelson, Gordon Lightfoot, and others; the resulting album is rushed and sloppy, the audio quality full of pops and hisses, sounding every bit as rough and muddy as, say, the surviving Robert Johnson tapes, or something off the Harry Smith anthology.

This is an elaborate novelty, and maybe just a tiny bit of a mind game; after all, Young has taken songs that are nearly all from the 60s and early 70s and made them sound like unearthed singles from the 1920s, a move that plays fast and loose with our conceptions of musical authenticity. It does more than that, though: It also drives home the looming suspicion that, these days, Young is less interested in music and more interested in being a tech-obsessed old curmudgeon—whether that means fiddling with electric cars, his Pono sound system, or Jack’s carnival recording booth. (Admittedly, the notion that Young doesn’t care about songs anymore is undercut by the enthusiasm he displayed when talking about some of these tunes on Jimmy Fallon not long ago.)

This perception that A Letter Home isn’t really about the music—that it’s more about the recording method—sets the stage for an unexpectedly moving and revealing program: Whether by intention or not, Young and White have proven the resilience of these songs, their transcendence over recording methods, concepts, and gimmicks. There’s an old Prince quote, about how a great song is one that you can strip back to just voice and a rhythm instrument and still have something that feels alive and complete. That’s what happens here: The songs are reduced to bare bones and frayed edges but still sound sublime—all of them—whether it’s the surprisingly jaunty take on “Reason to Believe,” a most tender “Girl from the North Country,” or a haunted “Needle of Death.” Maybe the best song: Willie’s “On the Road Again,” for which Jack pulls a piano right up to the door of the recording booth, pounding away and adding a distant duet vocal, the whole song constantly sounding like it’s about to come apart but never quite doing so.

The soul of these songs, and the warmth of the performances, cut through the hiss and scratches and pops—and in the end, the goofy recording technique is simply the delivery vehicle for a great, wonderfully ragged set of music, not a hindrance to it. That’s wildly, surprisingly moving—and for me, it’s one of the more endearing Neil Young recordings.

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