Neil Young’s A Letter Home may sound a little rough to some listeners, especially those used to today’s production practices, but it is very like one of the best albums of his career, 1974’s Tonight’s the Night. In terms of production values, that is. The songs on A Letter Home are—in keeping with a current trend—all covers. Jeff Lynne, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Robin Trower, and many other well-established artists are releasing covers of the songs that particularly influenced them. Neil’s is, of course, a little different from the rest.
Listening to A Letter Home is an odd experience, a little like overhearing him through a screen door from the street as he strums away in an old Victorian parlour; the production values are primitive, but it is a compelling album. Chances are all Neil Young fans would pause on the sidewalk and listen to the tunes coming through the screen door. At times, the sound is more akin to a 78 coming through the horn of an old windup turntable through that old screen door...etc. (and there shall be no mention of the irony of this fact in light of Neil’s Pono).
So Was It Recorded in a Phone Booth?
Sort of. This is a Neil Young/Jack White project recorded at Third Man Records in Nashville on a refurbished 1947 Voice-O-Graph machine. The Voice-O-Graph looks a lot like a phone booth and to add to the phone-booth effect is the fact that Neil Young addresses his late mother as if he were speaking to her. The first track is a convincing message to her, to “up there,” including a plea to start talking to his father again. He notes later, again to his mother, that the songs are rediscoveries of the tunes he used to play all the time.
The Weather Man’s In Trouble
So what else does he say to his mother? The main message, interspersed by more personal things, is that "Al the weatherman" gets in trouble these days. It’s a message about global warming from the little phone-booth sized recording studio.
The other messages, in the form of covers, are all wonderful tunes, everything from Willie Nelson to Bruce Springsteen. His covers of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” and “If You Could Read My Mind” may be the best work on the album, though Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death” resonates well in that little booth. Versions of “Crazy,” “Since I Met You Baby,” and “On the Road Again” are also brilliantly realized.
So give this album a good listen and do your part to make the weatherman’s job easier.