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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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