Good Folk Sans Gimmick
Neil Young’s thirty-fifth studio album A Letter Home is the kind of album reviewers need to approach with an extreme sense of caution. While Young’s name is prone to inspire awe within the folk genre and makes it easy for anyone to write off a release as excellent due to Young’s musical skill and timeless vocal charm, his vision on Letter deserves scrutiny, in any case.
Teaming up with Jack White, Young recorded all tracks on Letter with a refurbished 1947 Voice-o-Graph vinyl recording booth, a piece of audio technology that cuts music directly onto a vinyl record in real time. This comes with all the whistles and bells and cracks of old records, indubitably. White and Young chose this method of recording, as stated on the album, as a means of communicating to Young’s deceased parents through a medium they would be comfortable with and possibly find familiar.
In any case, the choice to record A Letter Home in such a manner is certainly part of the eclectic and strange artistic choices that have made Young stand out over his lengthy career. Disregarding the medium for a second, this release stands out mainly with regard to the sheer honesty and beauty of Young in his old glory. The album is all covers from other greats, from Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown” to Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain.” From a first listen, it is obvious that every track Young chose resonates deeply with him, and this sense of gravity carries through on the recording.
“Early Morning Rain” for instance, is a standout in this regard; Young’s quavering tenor coupled with acoustic instrumentation really can’t be beat within the folk genre. Sure, the dulled quality of the recording, accompanied by snaps and crackles of the vinyl, might throw off the listener and come across as a gimmick, but in the end Young’s artistic choice only detracts from his latest release to a small degree.
Would the album have been better without the use of the Voice-o-Graph? Probably. A studio-quality acoustic album from Neil Young unannounced would be bound to throw hordes of diehard fans and all of Canada into a feeding frenzy. The gimmick of A Letter Home deserves praise for its ingenuity if anything, but not quality. Regardless, Letter will likely stand out as one of the top folk releases of the year for the always delightful performance by Young, and for this reason merits a listen by any and all devoted folk fans.