In almost 50 years full of sharp stylistic left turns and confounding career moves, A Letter Home has to be in Neil Young’s top 10 most Neil Young-y moments. In case you missed it, Neil has spent the last year or so heavily promoting PONO, a new digital music delivery system that is allegedly as high-quality as it gets. So is his first post-PONO release an audiophile’s dream come true? Nope, it’s a collection of acoustic covers recorded direct to disc in a 1947 “Voice-o-Graph” booth at Jack White’s Third Man Records in Nashville. It’s extremely low-tech and extremely lo-fi — the anti-PONO, if you will. Weird, right?
But beyond the weirdness, A Letter Home is packed with intimate, folkie charm, including tunes by Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, Willie Nelson, The Everly Brothers, Bruce Springsteen and others. Some of them, like the ramshackle “On The Road Again” (with White pounding along on piano) sound improvised on the spot, tossed off, but in a totally fun way. “Girl From North Country” feels a bit like Neil is remembering the chords as he goes along. But others demonstrate a laser-like focus. The chilling rendition of Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death” (the melody of which Neil borrowed way back when for his own “Ambulance Blues”) cuts right to the quick, emerging hauntingly from beneath the acetate’s surface noise. Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” is similarly powerful (though nothing can really beat Gord himself singing this one.A Letter Home isn’t a masterpiece, but as its casual title implies, it’s not really meant to be one. Instead, enjoy a low-key, crackly listen. Who needs PONO when we’ve got the Voice-o-Graph? words / t wilcox