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. But I’m glad they exist. They’ve kept Young from settling into any predictable late-career malaise and have helped clear his palate for follow-ups as accomplished as 2010’s Le Noise and 2012’s Psychedelic Pill.
A Letter Home, a covers collection recorded in Jack White’s refurbished 1947 Voice-o-Graph recording booth, fits squarely into the former tradition. It’s an odd one, at best. It was recorded with one mic in what Young has likened to a phone booth, “all acoustic with a harmonica inside a closed space.” Occasionally, there is piano. Young has called it “one of the lowest-tech experiences I’ve ever had.” Naturally, as PonoPlayer hits the market, the result will be available in high-resolution audio. Go figure.
It’s a gimmick, of course, but to what extent is it an effective or successful one? Young is 68, yet the Voice-o-Graph microphone makes him sound 30 years older, a weathered, frail specter of his voice seemingly floating from some great-grandfather’s transistor radio. That aural quality has emotional pull on “Girl from the North Country”, replacing the youthful wistfulness of Bob Dylan’s original with something else entirely. And it works well on the Everly Brothers’ “I Wonder If I Care As Much”, which finds Young and White pulling off a duet in Don and Phil fashion, as well as on Gordon Lightfoot’s gorgeous “Early Morning Rain”, where Young’s distant vocals convey the road-weary quality the song demands.
But the “ancient electro-mechanical technology” is less generous to his acoustic guitar, which sounds almost unbearably tinny, especially in mind of past acoustic recordings as remarkably rich and full-bodied as Harvest Moon or, in the sparse live department, Live at Massey Hall. Rich and full-bodied is, of course, not what Young is going for here, but worse still, the instrumental performances — guitar, mostly, but piano on “Since I Met You Baby” and “Reason to Believe” — seem strangely limp and faltering, as if Young has sliced open his finger and must strain to hit the chords in question. It’s not that his skills are fading or that he can’t tackle songs this elementary in a single take. I saw him perform an acoustic set in January, and he sounded excellent. But here, the artist who once shouted out for “Live Music Is Better” bumper stickers has somewhat consciously decided that tentative, reaching performances are in keeping with the spirit of the project.
There is then the odd issue of the song selections. They are all covers, aside from rambling spoken-word asides addressed to the singer’s late mother (“My friend Jack has got this box that I can talk to you from!”), but by sticking to classic numbers primarily from the ’50s and ’60s, Young hardly strays from his comfort zone. That’s a weirdly conservative choice, considering the two other extremes he could have explored — say, pulling a Johnny Cash and covering contemporary selections (Young’s partnership with White and previous collaborations with Pearl Jam keep this possibility well within sight), or sticking to the focus of the project and unearthing folk songs from 1947 or so.
Instead, we have covers of Dylan and Springsteen, of Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death”. It’s no surprise that Young is one of the few artists on Earth capable of tackling Dylan covers with the requisite authority; that’s been well established. Nor should it shock anyone that the guy who wrote “The Needle and the Damage Done” and recorded Tonight’s the Night in a haze of mourning does a good job with Jansch’s haunting anti-drug ode. The songs chosen for this project are altogether less interesting than the way in which they were recorded.
Neil Young has 35 studio records to his name at this point. A Letter Home won’t in future decades be listed alongside the best or the worst of those offerings, but it might find mention as one of his oddest fleeting experiments, alongside Everybody’s Rockin’, Trans, Greendale, Living with War, or lord knows what else is still to come. This one is as baffling as it is intriguing, and it’s tough to imagine Young gives a shit about what you or I think of it. I suspect he’s already sketching out the next left turn.
Essential Tracks: “Girl From the North Country”, “Needle of Death”