Low fidelity: Young in the Voice-O-Graph booth at Third Man Records in Nashville.
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Review: A Letter Home by Neil Young – a froggy echo travelling up the U-bend of time

A Letter Home was recorded in a Voice-O-Graph booth in Jack White’s “novelties lounge”. With cover songs and lo-fi crackles, it is an object study in the pros and cons of retro audio porn.

The photo shows Neil Young recording his new album in a refurbished 1947 Voice-O-Graph machine, currently housed in the “novelties lounge” of Jack White’s studios. For those too young to remember, Voice-O-Graphs were found at state fairs and seaside arcades. For a modest fee, a punter could record a personal message for a loved one – or, in the imagination of Graham Greene, a loathed one – which was then pressed on to a keepsake vinyl. “Like talking on the phone . . . but a thousand times more thrilling!” the adverts claimed. Neil Young addresses his departed mother (“Hey, Mom, Jack and I have discovered loads of the old songs I use to sing, so I’m going to send some of these to ya!”) and dashes off a dozen or so cover versions.

The swiftness and economy of the booth doubtless appealed to a man who puts out an album every ten minutes but has, in recent years, demonstrated a relaxed attitude to quality control. All this is also an act of caprice. Young’s big project at the moment is a digital music service called Pono (the Hawaiian for “righteousness”), designed to provide the listener with the best-quality audio experience possible – which A Letter Home most certainly isn’t.

The fetishising of vintage studio equipment and super-creaky recordings has been a theme in pop for some time. Years ago, I sat in a crowded pub with a boy who played me wax-cylinder blues songs from the 1920s through a single headphone, the voices indecipherable beneath 90 years of dirt, wind and scratching. Shoving my index finger deep inside my ear, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the furniture of the record was more important to my date than the music itself; this kind of retro audio-porn feels like an affectation, the musical equivalent of the artisan crisp or the fixie bike.

On A Letter Home, accompanied by guitar and a bit of whistling, Shakey’s voice emerges as a froggy echo travelling up the U-bend of time. But his selection of tracks is exquisite. These are tiny, three-minute wonders, mostly from the 1950s or 1960s, the kind of magic melodies that make the shoulders sink and the eyes float into the middle distance: the gloriously sulky “Reason to Believe” by Tim Hardin; the gorgeously sweet “Changes” by the protest singer Phil Ochs. Generally, Young whacks the song up a key and does it a bit faster. Apart from the sound quality – warps, crackles, wavering – the main difference is in the delivery, which is eccentric, each track tossed off like a naive sketch. “Changes” was already in his wheelhouse – he performed it at Farm Aid last year – and it works because it is just obscure enough to benefit from recasting.

But you do wonder what he hoped to “bring” to Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country”. And “Needle of Death” suffers because no songwriter deserves decent sound quality more than Bert Jansch, whose every ghostly harmonic and thumb-squeak was an essential part of his recording. The song inspired Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done” and perhaps this whole venture is an exercise in auto­biography. Sometimes, even the speed of his playing seems to say: “We all know why we’re here.”

For me, the real time-capsule effect  comes when you’re pushed to revisit the original tracks. There’s a certain kind of song here that just doesn’t get written any more – urbane, late-1960s folk-pop beloved of America’s network TV shows, all cinematic strings and new-man lyrics as tightly wrought as doilies. On the cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” (“I walk away like a movie star who gets burned in a three-way script”), Young’s voice frees that extraordinary tune from its original, sugary setting. Elsewhere the olde-time treatment doesn’t make much sense to me: he opens Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain”, inspired by Boeing 707s, with a thunderous glitch, pulling the song back to some dusty, one-horse studio straight out of a Coen brothers movie, long before the days of Pan Am.

The trick works better with the more frivolous songs. They brought a piano up alongside the Voice-O-Graph and someone – presumably Jack White – played warped honky-tonk alongside Young in the manner of a saloon-bar dame. It sounds a treat in Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” (Young plays Hyde Park in June) because the song is approached as a kind of musical joke. Likewise, “Crazy”, the smooching Patsy Cline hit, written by Willie when he was a slick-haired back-room boy at Pamper Music Publishing. Young’s version is so jaunty that it sounds like a demo, recalling a time when pop songs really were throwaway things. Perhaps this album was meant to be heard just once and chucked out. But then, why the deluxe box set?

In recent years, Young has been documenting his life through archives, films, bizarre autobiographies and records a bit like this one – it’s a vast, Jarndyce-and-Jarndyce-like task that he will probably never complete, since the scope of the project seems to be changing all the time.

Among all the ephemera, there must exist out there some manner of royalty cheque from Neil to Nelson and Dylan and Springsteen, whose “My Home Town” is covered on A Letter Home. I hope someone is framing them. That’s one rock relic I’d like to see.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Pedro Almodóvar: "I do wake up and feel that the world is coming to an end"

Mark Lawson talks to the director about hope, despair and why he wants to make a sequel to Deadpool.

When Pedro Almodóvar’s characters are in crisis, grief or even comas, they tend towards an optimistic view of the human condition. The Spanish film-maker confesses that this reflects his temperament but reports that he is cur­rently struggling to maintain his enthusiastic world-view off-screen.

“I have to be optimistic, because it’s the only way to survive,” he says, on a trip to London to launch his 20th feature film, Julieta. “I want to think that next month or next year will be better than now. But . . .”
He switches at this point from his near-fluent English to Spanish for translation by Maria Delgado, the Anglo-Spanish academic who is present at his request to act as his interpreter. Modest and wry, suggesting a rare combination of genius and sweetie, Almodóvar uses his home vocabulary for complex issues: in this case, the xenophobic politics, fuelled by fears of terrorism and immigration, that have engulfed European cities, including Madrid, where he lives on the exclusive west side, close to the home of his partner, the actor Fernando Iglesias.

“In Spain, the situation is awful,” he says, backcombing his trademark frizz of now grey hair with one hand. “We are on the edge of the third general election in a year and this is very bad for the country. The country doesn’t actually recognise itself in its institutions: the monarchy [and] the parliament have lost their identity.”

If Spain were to have an EU referendum, would it result in (as it were) Spexit?

“I think we would vote to stay. Brexit has served as an example – I’m sorry to say this – of what shouldn’t happen. And I say that with full respect for the decision taken.”

It’s not just Spanish politics that is challenging his usual equilibrium. “I do wake up and feel that the world is coming to an end. I pray each and every night that Donald Trump does not become US president. And my prayers are actually more significant in this respect because I’m a non-believer, so imagine how heartfelt they are!”

Although Julieta was completed before the Spanish elections, Britain’s EU referendum and the Republican presidential nomination, it is prophetically attuned to the serious mood of the news. Such is the shift in gravity from Almodóvar’s last film, I’m So Excited! – a musical farce set on a jet – that it is as if the Zucker brothers had followed the success of Airplane! with an adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.

“I did set out to approach Julieta with as much sombreness as possible,” he says. “So it really was a matter of rejecting the habitual characteristics of my own cinema, the way I’m identified. I have made 20 movies now and so if there is a possibility to change in the 20th, then it is very welcome . . . There aren’t that many opportunities to change, because one carries on being oneself!”

He became himself 66 years ago in ­Calzada de Calatrava, a Castilian village of a few thousand souls. From his parents – a winemaker father and a mother who wrote and read for uneducated local people – it is tempting to see an inheritance of the sensual pleasure and literary intelligence that mark his films. His early efforts to make cinema were frustrated by the closure of the Spanish national film school in Madrid by Francisco Franco, but the constitutional monarchy that followed the fascist dictator’s death allowed him to start producing work – reflecting his liberal, gay, atheist, male-feminist sensibilities – that would have been unthinkable under the military regime.

Even after more than three decades of creative freedom, Almodóvar feels he needed to have made so many films and accumulated so much life experience before being able to deal with the depth of emotion in Julieta, the story of a character who is unable to communicate with her mother, because of Alzheimer’s disease, or her daughter, from whom she is estranged. Although it tones down the comic warmth of his signature films and eschews their fantastical sequences, Julieta is recognisably the work of a great original. For instance, a potentially crucial meeting between two characters, which in a Hollywood version might last half of the film, simply does not appear here.

What Almodóvar also does is fill each film with images that could hang in the Prado. Even by his standards of painterly cinema, the tableau in which Julieta dresses her bedridden mother and brings her outdoors is extraordinary: the carefully chosen tones of the wall, the clothes and the food on a table would have thrilled Velázquez. “In dresses, in colours, in wallpaper, there is a dramatic intention, even if it is not necessarily obvious to the viewer,” he says. “Colour is one of the best instruments to convey emotion.”

As a writer-director, he doesn’t consider the “look” of his films until he has finished the first draft of the script, and does not visualise characters when he is writing – though there have been exceptions when he was working with Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas and his long-time muse Penélope Cruz. With Julieta, he could see no role for any of his “family of actors” and so threw the casting net wider, dividing the old and young parts of the title role between Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte, both newcomers to his movies.

Linguistically, he is less adaptive. Hispanic directors such as Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón have taken on anglophone projects in Hollywood, but Almodóvar has refused numerous offers.

Directors are usually wary of revealing the successful films they might have made, but he does say that he was “very close” to doing Brokeback Mountain (it was eventually directed by Ang Lee). “They were very patient waiting for me,” he tells me. “But, in the end, I thought that my way of shooting wasn’t right for it. I’m accustomed to a freedom, an independence that I don’t think the production system of Hollywood would ever allow me.”

Yet he unexpectedly reveals an ambition to direct a Deadpool movie, following Tim Miller’s recent blockbuster about a superhero with healing powers. “I’d love to do that, but the script would have to be by Quentin Tarantino, who would be prefect for this movie. I’d like to co-direct that script with him. That would be a real possibility, if he wanted to do it.”

Even the big franchises are reaching out to unexpected directors – Sam Mendes for Bond, Paul Greengrass for the Bourne movies – so would Almodóvar take a call from the producers of either?
“These sorts of films, they are really in the hands of second-, third- and fourth-unit directors and post-production – but in my films, everything you see, I have had contact with,” he says. “Many of the elements in the film are actually mine: I buy things and then use them in a movie, or bring them to the set from my own home. And I couldn’t give up that control.” 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser