Neil Young: A Letter Home review – a gloriously gloomy album of lo-fi covers

In a career full of wilfully perverse moves, this ought to take the cake – but in fact, Neil Young's deliberately crackly, muffled covers album turns out to be a very powerful thing

It can hardly have failed to escape your notice that Neil Young has recently been engaged in an argument about the need for better sound quality in the MP3 age. He has poured a great deal of his own, and indeed other people's money into the Pono system, a high-resolution digital music service, due to launch later this year, that he claims will "rescue the art form that I've practised for 50 years". It is at this point in the story that the reader should brace ourselves for a truly classic example of Neil Young being Neil Young: behaving in a manner so wilfully contrary that bafflement seems the only possible response.

At the height of an argument in which he is embroiled as the staunch defender of the importance of high-fidelity sound, he's taken it upon himself to release arguably the lowest-fidelity album ever made by a major artist. A Letter Home was made in a restored 1947 Voice-O-Graph booth, a fairground attraction that allowed users to take home a vinyl record of their voice. The result is muffled, distorted and buried beneath layers of crackle and hiss. Depending on your perspective, it either adds a magical patina of age to the music, or sounds like someone locked Neil Young in a cupboard then set about cooking a fried breakfast. Either way, it's hard to see exactly how it could be improved by being listened to in 24-bit 192khz sound, which Young has spent the last few years insisting is the only way to really appreciate recorded music.

Why he would release this at the exact moment he's trying to flog people a $399 24-bit 192khz audio player seems destined to remain another unanswered question in the ongoing saga of WTF? that is Neil Young's career, although it's worth noting that there's far more to commend A Letter Home than its perversity. Beneath the distortion lurk acoustic cover versions. Many of them are of songs that Young might have played as a budding folkie on Toronto's Yorksville scene, had he not rendered himself unemployable back then by doggedly refusing to play any of the coffee-house standards that Yorksville audiences might have wanted to hear. His performance of Dylan's Girl from the North County is fantastic – he sounds riven with bitterness about said girl's departure, spitting out the line about hoping she's wearing a coat so warm as if he hopes she freezes to death – but the most fascinating of them is Bert Jansch's Needle of Death. It's a song whose shadow hangs long over Young's own work – its lyrics inspired The Needle and the Damage Done, he pinched its melody for 1974's Ambulance Blues – and Young's voice lends a real eeriness to its saga of addiction.

Reading on mobile? Click here to watch Needle of Death video

In fact, a certain eeriness is very much in evidence throughout A Letter Home, an album that opens with three minutes of spoken word in which Young addresses his late mother, urging her to make amends with her ex-husband in the hereafter. The eeriness is largely due to the effect of the recording booth's distortion on Young's voice. Over the last 50 years, his idiosyncratic vocal style has gone from causing widespread dismay – "we sounded quite good … then Neil started singing," as one member of his early 60s combo the Squires gloomily recalled – to comforting familiarity. Young sounds as he always did, but the Voice-O-Graph seems to give his singing its strangeness back: enveloped in its warped, wavering noise, he suddenly sounds less like a legendary rock star than one of those oddball denizens of the old, weird America dug up by Harry Smith for the Anthology of American Folk Music. The sound sometimes jars with the material – not least Willie Nelson's cheery tale of touring life, On the Road Again – but more often it potentiates it. If You Could Read My Mind, written by Young's Yorkville contemporary Gordon Lightfoot, is transformed from easy-listening chart-topper into something haunted and strange. Sung as a duet with Jack White, the Everly Brothers' I Wonder Why I Care As Much sounds chillingly desolate.

But the most impactful track here might be the most recent, Bruce Springsteen's My Hometown: a song from the era of Reaganomics, about financial devastation wrought on 1960s New Jersey, recorded, during yet another financial crisis, in a manner that suggests it was cut at the height of the Great Depression. The suggestion seems to be that this kind of misery is eternal: while Springsteen sang it in a voice that implied stoicism, Young just sounds crushed. Its gloom is potent and pervasive, and, while you're mired in it, A Letter Home doesn't seem like a baffling act of wilful perversity. It makes perfect sense, as it presumably does to the man who recorded it.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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