Neil Young Surprises Fans and Sends A Letter Home
“It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” Neil Young so memorably sang in his “Hey Hey, My, My (Into the Black),” the song that famously provides the counterpart to his “My, My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” on his Rust Never Sleeps album (1979).
Well, Young himself will neither burn out nor fade away nor rust nor sleep. The man whose insatiable curiosity and whose unceasing love of experimenting with musical styles and with music technology has done it again.
In his usual crafty, and sometimes enigmatic, way, Young surprised fans on Record Store Day—Saturday, April 19—by releasing an all-acoustic album of covers exclusively on vinyl. With the feel, look, and sound of a 78, A Letter Home contains 11 songs that Young says are ones that he loves and ones that have deeply influenced him. Each side opens with a “letter to home” in which Young delivers a message to his mother, telling her about this new technology he’s using to record the “letter home” and urging her to give his greetings to his family. On nine of the songs, it’s just Young, his guitar, and his harmonica rendering spare, loving, affecting versions of tunes ranging from a haunting take on Phil Ochs’ “Changes” and an almost phrase-for-phrase take on Dylan’s “North Country Girl” to a poignant, lonesome-sounding “Reason to Believe” (Tim Hardin), a honky “On the Road Again” (Willie Nelson), and a contemplative “If You Could Read My Mind” (Gordon Lightfoot). The album’s most moving moment comes in Young’s emotional and stirring take on Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death,” which Young acknowledges as a source of his own “Needle and the Damage Done” from 1972’s Harvest. Jack White joins Young on two of the songs, providing vocals and piano on “On the Road Again” and vocals and guitar on “I Wonder If Care as Much” (The Everly Brothers).
In January 2014, Young announced that he would be releasing in March an album that is “one of the lowest tech experiences I’ve ever had.” In fact, Third Man Records provided a little note with each album that the company had “unearthed Neil Young’s A Letter Home.” On the note, Homer Grosvenor announces that this album is “an unheard collection of rediscovered songs from the past recorded on ancient electro-mechanical technology that captures and unleashes the essence of something that could have been gone forever.” Always playful, Young includes this tongue-in-cheek note as a veiled reference not only to his home in Winnipeg where he lived at 1123 Grosvenor but also to his dedication to and obsession with capturing sound on a recording as close to the sound of instruments and voice as possible. As he told Spin, he recorded this in a vintage “1940s recording booth. It’s all acoustic with a harmonica inside a closed space, with one mic to vinyl.” The album’s cover shows Young in the phone booth-like structure. In fact, everything about the album, from the sepia toned cover art to the inside sleeve to the little price sticker ($3.98) on the back left upper corner of the album to the recording techniques and the sound, takes us back to an earlier time when vinyl records, with all their crackly, spindly sounds brought us closer to the musicians standing inside those little recording booths delivering their songs to us.
A Letter Home
“A Letter Home” Intro
- “Changes” (Phil Ochs)
- “Girl from the North Country” (Bob Dylan)
- “Needle of Death” (Bert Jansch)
- “Early Morning Rain” (Gordon Lightfoot)
- “Crazy” (Willie Nelson)
- “Reason to Believe” (Tim Hardin)
- “On the Road Again” (Willie Nelson)
- “If You Could Read My Mind” (Gordon Lightfoot)
- “Since I Met You Baby” (Ivory Joe Hunter)
- “My Hometown” (Bruce Springsteen)
- “I Wonder If I Care as Much” (Don Everly)
Neil Young singing “Reason to Believe” at Farm Aid 2013: