There's something special about hearing a 68-year-old Neil Young talking excitedly as if he's a teenage kid sending a record home to his Ma. The man is an ageless wonder of sorts, having become an international superstar as a folk rock singer-songwriter in the early '70s, then transforming himself like a chameleon as he's touched on styles of music ranging from country to hard rock to electronic experimentalism to grunge to psychedelia through the '70s, '80s, '90s, and 2000s, often circling back and then moving on without any predictability. As decades roll by, Neil Young continues to produce a wealth of material that's interesting and sometimes timeless.
Having said that, A Letter Home isn't an easy listen all the way through. Beginning with the "A Letter Home Intro," we get a familiar dose of Young's in-your-face environmental politics as he talks about the weather. We also get a familiar dose of Young's emotional scars from the childhood breakup of his parents. In case you're wondering, Young's mother Edna "Rassy" Young passed away in 1990 at the age of 72. "Reason To Believe" starts the second side to the record with a similar personal note spoken to Neil's mother. He mentions Grosvenor Avenue in Winnipeg, where the two used to sing songs together when he was a kid. The Letter Home concept is actually one of the most intimate elements of any record I've ever heard, but most people will want to skip over that first "Intro..." track - clocking in at 2+ minutes - especially once they've heard it.
Intimacy is at the core of A Letter Home. Playing nothing but covers, Young shares songs that he has loved and identified with during different parts of his own life. Even though Young didn't write any original songs for the album, the record is very personal. Recorded entirely in Jack White's Third Man Records 1947 Voice-O-Graph recording booth, the listening experience is like a journey through the past. We're transported to a bygone era when the highest quality recordings were recorded completely in the moment, in 1 take with 1 microphone.
The sound of the primitive recording booth, where the music is captured direct to disc, is essentially like a lo-fi 45 RPM vinyl record that sounds a lot like the old Alan Lomax field recordings of folk and blues artists in the '40s. In some ways, each recording has a life of its own, as we hear the crackling and popping that results from the imperfections of each disc and how the needle happened to drag across the disc in that exact moment based on factors like the loudness of Young's performance.
Highlights of the record include Willie Nelson classics "Crazy" and "On The Road Again" which showcase the cowboy style of solo acoustic guitar and vocals that sound right at home around a campfire or on a back porch. Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" is another highlight, with vocals that really tug at the heartstrings. "Girl From The North Country" is a knowing nod to Bob Dylan's genius, and songs like "Changes" by Phil Ochs and "Needle Of Death" by Bert Jansch show some of the influences on Young's own songwriting development during the early part of his career.
Of course, the great irony of the primitive sound for A Letter Home is that Young's recently Kickstarted PONO digital music service promises the most advanced digital audio quality on the market. It might seem contradictory, especially when you hear songs like "Early Morning Rain" and "My Hometown" on the album that are completely distorted and frankly don't sound right. The reality is that even if these recordings are distorted, they still have an analog warmth to them because that's how the soundwaves were first captured. Fidelity and sound quality are not the same exact thing, and the sonic character here is a playful element that works beautifully within the overall concept of the album.
Ben Ratliff of The New York Times once said that after reviewing a Neil Young concert he got an email from a reader that said something to the effect of "I don't understand you New York media intellectual people. The idea of critiquing Neil Young is like critiquing a river, man. Because he just goes and he doesn't care what you think." The reality is that Neil Young doesn't care what most critics think. He makes music like A Letter Home because he feels a deep personal love for the human side of the arts, and that's just what he does.
For Neil Young's latest music, news, and tour dates, check out his Zumic artist page.
Neil Young "A Letter Home" Tracklist & Writer Credits
|1.||"A Letter Home Intro"||2:16|
|3.||"Girl from the North Country"||Bob Dylan||3:32|
|4.||"Needle of Death"||Bert Jansch||4:57|
|5.||"Early Morning Rain"||Gordon Lightfoot||4:24|
|7.||"Reason to Believe"||Tim Hardin||2:47|
|8.||"On the Road Again"||Willie Nelson||2:23|
|9.||"If You Could Read My Mind""||Gordon Lightfoot||4:04|
|10.||"Since I Met You Baby"||Ivory Joe Hunter||2:13|
|11.||"My Hometown"||Bruce Springsteen||4:08|
|12.||"I Wonder If I Care as Much"||The Everly Brothers||2:29|