By rights, Neil Young should have given up. He’s done his fair share and then some. Revitalizing first folk and then rock, he spent the best part of fifty years side stepping expectation and infuriating both his detractors and his admirers. His 60s peers are now happy to live off sold out arena shows and half-baked nostalgic echoes, but Young adamantly refuses that fate. A perfectionist, he recently apologized to a crowd at the O2 arena for an underwhelming performance and has spent the last few years creating technology designed to make MP3s sound pristine.
It is perhaps all too fitting then, that Young, on the verge of releasing the state of the art Pono system with a $399 price tag, has decided to deliver the most lo-fi recording of his career. A Letter Home was recorded in a restored 1947 Voice-O-Graph booth, a novelty even back then. The effect is to create a scratchy and fragile recording that matches Young’s weathered voice and functions as a time machine to a distant, sorrowful and almost certainly imagined past. The starkest of contrasts to 2010’s Le Noise, a sonic-laden creation of the 21st century studio that divided fans and couldn’t have been more modern.
But hang on; A Letter Home might have more in common with its predecessor than we first thought. This acoustic collection is just as artificial as Le Noise. These tracks aren’t broadcast from a 60s coffee shop, Young sneeringly snubbed that scene - if this is a trip into the past, its one that never existed for Young. The end goal is not to evoke memory, but to create an effect: the cracked façade, the battered surface and the beauty of the lyric. This collection of covers that touches upon the great protest singers (Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan) and the classic social commentators (Bruce Springsteen) is a perfect accompaniment to a world still in the grips of the post-recession blues.
Whether Young wants to remind the world that we’ve been here before, shattering nostalgic myths, or simply to waltz an austere waltz with a tear in his eye, it hardly matters. Young’s voice feels utterly essential. He retains a timeless heartbreaking quality while offering a reassuring undercurrent. Ever the contrarian, Young’s A Letter Home couldn’t be more distant or more of the moment. Timeless, but not tired, this collection of dusty relics have lost none of their sharpness as Young bucks the covers compilation trend. A Letter Home isn’t a Mother’s Day cash in, it is the work of an engaged artist who is looking back to dissect the present.
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