A Letter Home
Neil Young has a way of smirking that tells you he doesn’t give a fuck if you don’t get – and/or don’t like – the joke. When Neil Young smirks it’s usually dangerous. Although danger implies those moments where, mid-guitar solo it really seems like he’s standing on the edge of the mountain, about to chop it down with his hand. No this is a different kind of dangerous. I’m talking about him taking an organ on tour and rolling it out on stage to never play, simply because it reminds him of home, or having a young model walk across the stage with a guitar case while he plays a new lacklustre ballad; I’m talking about when he yelps a line about what he’s going to do when he grows up during Rust Never Sleeps, carrying an oversized harmonica by a chain; I’m talking about when he made that fucking film, Human Highway, when he did silly rockabilly covers, when he made the Greendale film, when he devoted a huge chunk of his memoir to talking about his new Pono creation, when he followed up years of talking about the future of music and the need for high-quality digital audio with an album of covers recorded in a restored Voice-O-Graph booth with Jack White…
Yes, A Letter Home is the sound of Neil Young smirking. Oh, there are some lovely song choices here, and some of the performances suit the old-world crackle (Gordon Lightfoot’s Early Morning Rain, especially) other songs stand up because of the fact that it’s that song – Dylan’s Girl From The North Country, Tim Hardin’s Reason To Believe and Bert Jansch’s Needle of Death particularly. But this stinks of stupid folly. And the sincere moments are ruined by the absurdity of the concept, particularly Young’s smugness in selling it. You really can tell he’s smirking in the faux-sincere opening “A Letter Home” where he speaks to his mother, instead of dropping flowers on her grave he’s sending here these songs. He has to tell her all about the project – and through her he’s telling the audience. He pops back midway through the record to address his mother again, and namedrop Jack White, they’ve “rediscovered some of the old songs…” He might as well be saying, Are you still listening? Because we’re not about to drop the joke. We’re still going…oh, and it’s not a joke to us. That’s why it’s funny…
Young’s at his worst – his most annoying – when he tries to be arty. And worse still when he apologises for it by justifying it. If A Letter Home had simply arrived, in this form, without the Jack White affiliation being announced, the tour of talk shows to show of the Voice-O-Graph artefact, without the painfully embarrassing spoken-word CliffsNotes, it might have stood a chance.
But instead it will simply be lapped up by Young apologists.
When Daniel Johnston made those early, hissy, awful-sounding recordings – of his own songs – he was desperate to connect with the world, to find a way out, to get the sound in his head down on the record (tape deck) in whatever way he could.
Here Young is doing one of his album-length pisstakes. The problem, as always, is that he probably – for a split second anyway – actually means it. (Watch him ditch this and head back to the Horse within months).
I love Neil Young. I do love that he keeps moving – and keeps us (his fans, his audience) guessing. And I love that he does this sort of shtick/shit. Good on him for fucking around and mixing it up. But this is a load of shit that will be celebrated as some new sound, as some “way back”, as some thumb of the nose to the industry. It is no such thing. It is bored rock-star folly. It is an almost desperate plea to once again be that contrarian after a decade of alternating the acoustic/electric solo/Horse cycle without really fucking anyone off since Greendale (oh, and I loved that record – but the film/concerts/concept was absurd).
You have to admire the man for the smirk this time. It’s as if he knows he’s going to sell this one to a disillusioned record-buying/Mp3-stealing audience all looking to seem hip to whatever feels like a new thing.
Recording the same songs – without the gimmick – would have been lovely.
And that out of tune guitar sound across A Letter Home – permeating, pulling at all that you know is wrong, especially when being delivered by someone who does know better – is fucking disgusting.