This next album is a disaster. Ordinarily I would have sold it immediately after I gave it its requisite three listens (I always give a new album at least three chances to impress me). I kept it only so I could write this review, giving my ears a small measure of vengeance.
Disc 850 is….A Letter Home
Artist: Neil Young
Year of Release: 2014
What’s up with the Cover? Neil prepares to settle in and record something old timey. The picture is a lot more fun than the result.
How I Came To Know It: I read an article about how Jack White and Neil Young had gotten together to record an album on an old 1940s analog recording booth. The idea appealed to me so I bought it without having heard a single track. This was a mistake.
How It Stacks Up: I have 20 Neil Young albums, which I think demonstrates that I think highly of him. I do not think highly of “A Letter Home” however, which finishes in last place at #20.
Ratings: 1 star
Neil Young has done many innovative projects over the years, and I’ve enjoyed most of them. “A Letter Home” is not one of those. It is a self-indulgent, meandering mess that takes some of my favourite songs and sucks the life out of them.
The origins for this album lie with Jack White, who got his hands on an old 1940s recording booth, presumably because this is the kind of junk multimillionaire music enthusiasts spend their money on. I don’t judge Jack for this; if I were a multimillionaire I would probably collect rare old stuff too. This should have been the end of it, with the booth locked away with the didgeridoos and Theremins in his Indiana Jones-style vault full of bizarre stuff.
Instead, Jack invited Neil over and showed off his discovery. I imagine them as walking around looking at it over a couple of beers, slowly getting drunk or stoned (or both) before deciding it would be a good idea to lay down a dozen tracks or so. I have to imagine them drunk and stoned because I have too much respect for both of them to picture them doing this sober.
Kidding aside, I expect a lot of musicianship and production talent went into getting the booth to sound as good as it does.
And how good is that, you ask? The production values on this album are about as bad as you can get and still call it music. It sounds like it has been recorded in a tin can that’s been insulated with dung. It sounds like one of those 78s you buy at the thrift store for fifty cents only to discover that someone spilled beer on it in 1964 and never cleaned it off. It sounds like hearing am radio through a walkie-talkie. It sucks.
In Jack and Neil’s defence, this is the sound they were going for. They wanted this authentic ‘old timey’ sound and boy, did they achieve it. Modern indie artists in love with old musical forms have nothing on these guys. This record takes indie to a whole new level. You might say it ‘punks’ indie, and in more ways than one.
Young’s guitar style, which is usually so refreshing sounds more like a vagrant plucking out a tune on a street corner. The piano sounds equally painful (I’m not sure how they fit a piano into the booth, but I wish they hadn’t). Neil’s voice has always been a bit frail, and this album keeps all that frailty intact, while managing to strip out any of the usual emotion from the delivery.
Worst of all, this album gives this this terrible treatment to some of my most beloved songs. Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” and “If You Could Read My Mind” and Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown” are all equally abused. The more I liked the original, the more painful it was to hear them hacked out as part of Jack White’s mad science project.
It’s clear that Neil is enjoying the connection to a technology as old as him, but it doesn’t make it good. I also sometimes bang away on my guitar for the sheer pleasure of it, but I don’t record it and try to sell it to people.
“A Letter Home” was a nifty idea, but it results in a very unappealing record. Jack White’s recording booth should be hermetically sealed in some box like the ark of the covenant in ‘Raiders’ and for the same reason; so it doesn’t hurt anyone else.