Neil Young had a new album out. I’d barely heard anything about it when I was in Best Buy looking at the ever-dwindling CD selection, but I grabbed it. It’s called A Letter Home and is a collection of songs from other writers that he finds significant. It includes a couple of classic Gordon Lightfoot songs, Phil Ochs, Bert Jansch, Willie Nelson (two from him), etc. It took me a couple of weeks to listen to it, but I popped it into my car’s CD player on a trip from Dave’s through Ohio. What surprised me first was how lo-fi it was. Turns out it was recorded in a restored Voice-O-Graph booth at Jack White’s Third Man operation in Nashville. This particular machine dates back to 1947 and allows one to record direct-to-vinyl, analog of course. It sounds rough, and it sounds authentic. The performances are minimal (there’s only so much this machine can do) which is perfect for these songs. There are spoken word bits by Neil, as if he’s narrating a letter to his late mother. That just adds to the winsomeness of the whole thing.
My first thought was, if someone like Neil was just starting out, maybe he has a couple of songs of his own but he’s mostly performing covers, this is the demo he’d do. There are a couple of songs that, even if he loves them, he probably would’ve been advised to choose differently. But actually I wouldn’t change a thing. This is Neil not just honoring his heroes, and not just celebrating the past. He’s creating something that a lot of us can relate to, those of us who think that not everything has to be so goddamn digitally perfect in every bit and byte. There’s lots to admire in that.