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.