Before Neil Young tries to master the state of audio with his high-quality digital music service, Pono, he wants to remind us where we once were. His new album, A Letter Home, was recorded in one full take on a rare Voice-o-Graph instant vinyl recording booth–the type of antique only Jack White could get his grubby hands on. Young’s 35th album was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee at White’s illustrious record shop and studio fun house, Third Man Records.
A Letter Home is a brittle collection of hand-picked, old-time favorite compositions of Young’s. Most are folk and country standards like “Changes” by Phil Ochs and “Crazy” by Willie Nelson. Young strums tenderly on an accoustic guitar, sometimes adding harmonica, sometimes playing a piano just outside the booth. The vinyl spits and crackles as it turns. Every now and then notes melt in lo-fi dissolution.
The songs are all decades old, with the newest being “My Hometown” by Bruce Springsteen, from 1985. On Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” Young lumbers over the piano keys. A whistle wilts and haunts on “Needle of Death” by Bert Jansch and here we get that too-familiar til-the-final-breath Neil Young tremble. The original was an inspiration for Young’s own classic, “Needle and the Damage Done,” off Harvest.
White shows up on piano and vocals on two songs, Nelson’s “On the Road Again” and “I Wonder If I Care as Much,” from The Everly Brothers. White spent 18 months or so refurbishing the phone-booth-sized studio, which dates back to 1947, and it has been a fixture at Third Man Records. Customers and wandering musicians can record themselves in it as they visit.
Young really grapples the heart when tackling the work of his contemporaries at the top of the songwriting totem pole: Bob Dylan and Springsteen. He takes Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country,” a chilling ode to a lover gone astray, and adds the weight of distance Dylan hadn’t yet felt (but soon would) when he wrote it in 1962. “My Hometown,” from Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., is all chugging nostalgia as Young reflects earnestly on the changes that inevitably befall the place of your birth.
For Neil Young, that place was Ontario, Canada. Throughout A Letter Home, he speaks candidly to his late mother Edna. It turns the heart into warm butter. Young reached back to those days for songs that still resonate today and pieced together an album of seemingly stray covers, but made it all his own. It is still a thrill to hear a no-frills album with nothing but the integrity of a life long lived put to tape for the decades hence.