Neil Young releases one of his most personal and enjoyable albums to date
Where do you start with Neil Young? Do you say that his career has spanned 50 years and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down? In that time he has released over 35 studio albums and countless live albums? He’s personally put money in to an electric car project? Or that his Pono audio system is arguably the best sounding digital files that have ever been released? Or should I just say Neil Young is my favourite singer songwriter EVER! Possibly, but with Neil Young, you don’t have to say these things, as everyone knows them, and countless other facts about this Canadian legend.
This week sees the commercial release of his latest album A Letter Home. Originally a vinyl only release by Jack White’s Third Man Records. Rumours were going around that the Jack White and Neil Young were working together, but the information was shady at best, then one night (without a fanfare) it was available on the Third Man website. Needless to say it sold out immediately it is now getting the digital and CD treatment. This is a back to basics album. It features Neil Young on an acoustic guitar (sometimes with a harmonica) and that’s it. Musicians have released stripped down albums before, but I’ve not heard any that sound like this. It was recorded at Third Man studio on their Voice-O-Graph. A Voice-O-Graph is a machine that allowed people to record songs, poems and letters home directly on to a vinyl record. They were popular in American in the 1940’s and 1950’s, but sadly have vanished. That is until Jack White got his hands on one and restored it. The concept of the album is simple, the album starts with Neil Young recording a piece to his Mother and then playing some covers. The second side of the record follows the same plan. It works really like (like all simple ideas do) and it doesn’t sound hokey either.
The covers that were recorded range from Bob Dylan, Bert Jansch, Gordon Lightfoot, Willie Nelson, Tim Hardin, Bruce Springsteen and the Everly Brothers to name a few. These are clearly songs that mean something to Neil Young as he plays them with passion, pride and respect, but what gives them more power is their authenticity. The recordings actually sound like they were found in a junk shop under a pile of discarded blues and classical records from the 1940’s. I get the same chills from listening to this as I did from Johnny Cash’s American Recordings. There is something wonderful about a voice that has been through the ringer and still sounds beautiful.
After listening to A Letter Home I immediately played 2010’s Le Noise. This album is also just Neil Young and guitar (Old Black this time). The two are companion pieces (even if they weren’t conceived that way), but A Letter Home is more moving. As I’ve said this is probably down to the song choices and recording methods, but there is something under pinning the music that really gets to me.
There are no down sides to this album, apart from at 39 minutes is seems a little short, considering two tracks are just spoken word pieces and another cover would have polished it off perfectly. I’m nit-picking here. This is one of the most honest and beautiful albums you will hear, not only this year, but in any year.
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