Neil Young – A Letter Home
On After The Goldrush, Neil Young covered an old Don Gibson song, ‘Oh, Lonesome Me’. Slowing it right down, he turned it from a cute 1950s country tune to a 1970 stoner classic. It’s a trick of transformation he’s pulled off more than once. ‘Four Strong Winds’ was a safe selection and it became one of his signature tunes. ‘Farmer John’ was a more surprising choice, but it was central to the wonderful scuzzed-up sound of Ragged Glory. Now, hot on the heels of last year’s Crazy Horse reunion, Neil Young has delivered another collection of covers. Recorded at Jack White’s Third Man studios in Nashville, it’s a highly nostalgic album. It begins with an audiogram to his late mother. Just loving chit chat. It’s cheesy, but sort of affecting. And the track selection is personal too. Mainly old songs from his parental past. Rick Rubin has definitely not been choosing the set list. But how do they sound? Well, a number of tracks could be originals straight from the Neil Young Archives. Previously unheard classics from the On The Beach, Comes A Time, Chrome Dreams era. They include Phil Ochs’ ‘Changes’, Bert Jansch’s ‘Needle Of Death’, Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Early Morning Rain’. And, perhaps most surprisingly of all because it’s so familiar, Bruce Springsteen’s ‘My Hometown’. But others don’t get it quite right. Neither of the Willie Nelson covers works well. ‘Crazy’ sounds just a bit too schmaltzy. And while the lyrics of ‘On The Road Again’ capture a surefire Neil Young spirit, the tune just doesn’t suit. And then there’s the by now infamous audio quality. Much has been made of the artist who champions hi-res audio putting out an album that crackles and hisses in a very lo-fi way. Recorded direct to vinyl on a 1947 Voice-o-Graph, some of the songs teeter on the unlistenable, particularly the piano-led ones. But there are also times when they underline the the pathos of the lyrics and the fragility in the voice, ‘Needle Of Death’ being the best example. The old-fi recording process is all part of the search for nostalgia on this album. It’s also, of course, a symptom of Neil Young’s general cussedness. And that’s why he’s still so compelling.