Like clockwork, about 18 months after the last Neil Young album arrives the new one, A Letter Home. Early rumors had pegged this one as a duets record with Jack White, but those proved to be unfounded. Jack White IS involved – he duets with Neil Young on two tracks and the record is out on White’s Third Man Records. Recalling Young’s experimental 80’s phase, this record comes with its own idiosyncracies – an album recorded entirely in a refurbished Voice-O-Graph box dating from 1947. The Voice-O-Graph (as shown on the album cover) is reminiscent of a telephone booth with barely enough room to accommodate Neil Young and his guitar. The standard edition is a direct to vinyl recording, warm crackles & pops present on the vinyl, CD, and download versions. The deluxe box set features an audiophile edition – just Neil and his guitar in glorious mono. You’d think this might come off as gimmicky – but it doesn’t. In fact, it is the 4th Neil Young record in a row that is an above average effort.
In the old days, people used the Voice-O-Graph to record messages for family members. A living document of history, especially popular amongst soldiers away from home. Neil Young uses the 1st track of the record to send off a heart warming message to his long deceased mother. The record is sparse, just Neil and his guitar on almost all the tracks. Piano on two, with Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather) providing backing vocals. Reexamined memories is a term Rolling Stone used describing the cover versions that fill up the album, and it is an apt description. This isn’t Neil Young covering Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, and Phil Ochs (to name just a few). This is Neil Young imbuing these songs with his sense of history and where he fits within it.
the life i love is making music with my friends (highlights)
After Neil’s message to his mother, we are treated to a stunning version of Phil Ochs’ Changes. The mic gives the vocals a muted quality which works really well with the songs that have been chosen. Though he is often called the “Godfather of Grunge”, Young’s acoustic guitar work is phenomenal on this tracks. There is an air of resignation when he sings “Green leaves of summer turn red in the fall / To brown and to yellow, they fade / And then they have to die / Trapped within the circle time parade of changes”. Needle of Death is originally by Bert Jansch and inspired several songs by Neil Young from the early 70’s. Neil’s spirit resides within this stunning cover, and it is chilling when he reaches he reaches into his upper register to sing “Your troubled young life / Had made you turn / To a needle of death”. Just acoustic guitar & voice. Perfection. Some reviewers didn’t like it, but I love this version of Willie Nelson’s On the Road Again. In this rendition, the song is given an air of sadness – life passing by. This is one of the tunes that features piano and Jack White on backing vocals. The harmonica licks carry the tune. Gordon Lightfoot’s If You Could Read My Mind is a nod to his fellow Canadian musician and is the highlight of the record for me. Gordon Lightfoot had penned the song as his marriage was falling apart and gave the tune some suitably bitter lyrics. He’s changed those lyrics over the years to be just a tad less pessimistic. Neil Young retains the original lyrics and bleeds emotion in his performance. “And if you read between the lines / You’ll know that I’m just tryin’ to understand / The feelings that you lack”. I Wonder If I Care As Much is a song by The Everly Brothers and closes the record in stunning fashion. The harmony vocals by Neil Young and Jack White are stunning – here’s hoping that these two record together again soon.
There aren’t a whole lot of missteps on this record – this is Neil in experimental, nostalgic, genius mode. Can I offer an objective opinion on Neil Young? In preparation for this record I listened to every solo record in chronological order and will admit that there are a few records that I don’t love. I will also say – even on his weakest records, Neil Young offers up at least a handful of gems. A Letter Home offers up 11 or 12 gems. Found memories? Covers record? Whatever you want to call it, this a worthwhile addition to your Neil Young collection.
Verdict: Needle of Life
For Fans of: Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, Bob Dylan, John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Gordon Lightfoot, Willie Nelson
- A Letter Home Intro
- Changes (Phil Ochs)
- Girl from the North Country (Bob Dylan)
- Needle of Death (Bert Jansch)
- Early Morning Rain (Gordon Lightfoot)
- Crazy (Willie Nelson)
- Reason to Believe (Tim Hardin)
- On the Road Again (Willie Nelson)
- If You Could Read My Mind (Gordon Lightfoot)
- Since I Met You Baby (Ivory Joe Hunter)
- My Hometown (Bruce Springsteen)
- I Wonder If I Care As Much (The Everly Brothers)