The anemic state of the music industry frequently raises suspicions about gimmicks and marketing ploys, and if not for the reputations of its creators—Neil Young and Jack White—that’s how A Letter Home might sound on paper. Recorded using a 1947 vinyl recording booth, A Letter Home risks putting process ahead of the listening experience, sacrificing fidelity for a cute narrative. Though White’s decade-long hunt for a Voice-O-Graph and its painstaking 18-month refurbishment are admirable, does that make up for the crackle and hum of the machine’s single-track recordings, or the occasional warping of Young’s iconically frail vocals? And beyond that, is there really a need to re-record songs that are either so iconic (Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown,” Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again” and “Crazy”) or over-represented (Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Only Read My Mind,” Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe”) that their lyrical weight has been rendered mostly meaningless?
The answer to both is a convincing yes, though a willingness to accept the collection on White and Young’s terms is crucial to getting anything out of A Letter Home. These terms are laid out in the spoken intro track, in which Young addresses his mother at the recommendation of “his friend Jack.” Of course, Young’s mother has been dead since 1990, making his requests for her to “start talking to daddy” since they are together now (he died in 2005) all the more tender. Later, Young prefaces “Reason To Believe” with another message to mom, this time recalling playing many of the album’s tracks while living with his family in Canada. Nothing about these little dedications seems contrived, though; rather, they give the man’s 35th studio album (yeah, a recording booth counts as a studio) a sense of purpose.
The idea that faded, wrinkled songs and an antiquated recording technique can transcend Young’s personal connection, which he claims “changed his life,” and connect listeners to their own past or to a time that’s long gone is present in every raw, clumsy word Young utters on the album. Likewise, the performances are often inspired enough that the right impressionable mind could easily hear Young’s rendition of, say, “Needle Of Death,” the album’s grim highlight, and find their own life changed. Sure, Young’s “Crazy” could never match the Patsy Cline record, and his take on The Everly Brothers’ “I Wonder If I Care As Much” wastes White’s guest harmonizing on a slight, anti-climactic album closer. But as a whole, Young and White have managed to make an album that’s absolutely useful with a recording process that is absolutely central to that use.