The more you look at it, Neil Young’s crusade for quality digital music with PONO seems less about fidelity and more about preservation, about purity. This is a man who loves old cars, who loves model trains, who loves doing things his own, stubborn way. Young’s clear vision for his work (and music in general) and his contrarianism have served him well. But if his new move towards digital music formats were about fidelity, A Letter Home wouldn’t make too much sense.
But yet, this crackling little record makes perfect sense. It’s both warm and frustrating, charming and stand-offish. Recorded in an old Voice-O-Graph machine, which is the size of a photo booth and often used in its day to record messages direct to record, this is Young at his most intimate but also at his most old-timey. That Jack White provided Young with the machine, and plays some on the record, is a perfect fit for the project. White is himself a self-stylized old soul, and an artist deeply committed to finding the inspiration in restriction. This little booth is nothing if not restricting, and Young piles himself and his guitar into it and works his way through a series of his favorite covers.
There’s a feeling in moments that you’re listening in on someone playing alone in their living room. There’s a sweet and quiet reticence to Young’s finger picking and warbling voice on his version of Phil Ochs’ “Changes”. Here and elsewhere, you get the feeling Young is re-learning songs he’s known for years as he plays them. It makes for the occasional slip or hump in the song, but to hear Young work his way softly through “Changes” at the start of the record puts us in the booth with him, or at least in the room the booth is in.
Young seems deeply aware of and eager to revisit his past through these songs on A Letter Home. Nowhere is this more apparent than on his excellent rendition of Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death”. It’s an aching rendition, and it revisits the past in several ways at once. You can feel, in the tense quiet of Young’s singing, a possible look back at his own past with drugs, a look back at those in his life lost to them. There’s also, as with these other songs, the clear look back at Jansch as a major influence on Young. But this also looks back at Young’s own work, as this song — and the melody Young whistles here — were the basis for his On the Beach cut, “Ambulance Blues”, one of the best songs in his catalog.
Elsewhere he pays tribute, with White on piano, to Tim Hardin on “Reason to Believe” and he honors Willie Nelson not once but twice on “Crazy” and “On the Road Again”. One of the best late-album cuts comes in Young’s take on Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind”. The crackling fidelity almost clears itself up here, and Young sings more directly than any other place on the record. If he sounds like he’s finding his feet on something like “Changes”, he sounds assured in his performance while also being wrapped up in Lightfoot’s lyrics.
It’s difficult not to be charmed by these performances. Young sounds so heartfelt in his admiration of his forefathers or his contemporaries, and even someone like Bruce Springsteen who came just after. Young also uses the Voice-O-Graph at the start of the record to speak to his late mother. He talks to her about the weather, urges her to talk to his father, and later on in the record tells her he’s sending these song her way. It’s a funny and charming frame for these songs, as silly as it is sweet, but in using this platform to speak to his late mother, it also speaks to Young’s notion of the transcendent nature of pure musical artifacts.
This dedication doesn’t stop the album from missing its mark on occasion. “On the Road Again”, with White singing along and playing piano, feels tossed-off and overcrowded. “My Hometown” is solid enough, but where other takes here feel pared back, this one feels stripped bare. In these moments, and in skips and crackles and wobbles over the entire album, we’re reminded that this recording approach is — even at its most true and convincing — still a conceit, and that conceit has its limitations. That those limitations yield some great performances makes A Letter Home a solid entry in Young’s huge catalog, but also one of his more successful experiments. It’s a scuffed-up, messy ode to purity. It’s the kind of contradiction we might expect from artists like Neil Young and co-producer Jack White, though it still surprises.