I was determined from the start not to like this album. After all, the very concept seemed like a goofy hipster gimmick. “Let’s record it in a 1940’s vinyl recording booth – yeah, that’ll be really cool.” How obscure.
Only old Neil could pull this off. Having recently lost my mom I was sucked in right away by his opening message to his late mother. Young has a personality that shines through even these prehistoric production values.
I found myself enjoying this album in much the same manner as I have enjoyed poorly recorded bootlegs of my favorite artists. You know, you’re first reaction is “This sounds like wombat wee-wee” but then you realize that it’s the best you’re going to get so you just concentrate on the music.
The performances are raw and immediate. They brought me back to early 1970’s local coffee houses and informal jams at parties where performers missed chord changes or sang much too loudly but no one seemed to care. How I wish that those days could come back. This is extremely refreshing in an age where bass and drums can be locked in tightly to each other with a dragging motion on a screen and flubbed notes can be edited or redrawn with a mouse ( not that I haven’t done this myself, mind you ).
Young gets mostly an A+ for song selection as these covers don’t sound forced. He has a real connection to this music. He was heavily influenced by Dylan, hence Girl From The North Country. Another influence, Bert Jansch, yields Needle of Death ( from Jansch’s 1965 debut ) which inspired Young’s Needle and the Damage Done. Another not so obvious influence is Gordon Lightfoot; included here with Early Morning Rain and If You Could Read My Mind. Lightfoot, a fellow Canadian, pioneered the singer-songwriter movement in the 1960’s along with Tim Hardin, whose Reason to Believe appears and Phil Ochs whose introspective song Changes provides the album’s high point. Even the Bruce Springsteen songs work for me – although other critics have found fault with them.
Letter From Home may not be for the casual fan who expects Rockin’ In The Free World or whichever other favorite they would shout in my ear at a Neil Young Concert. As I said, even I didn’t want to like this record. However, now I’m looking forward to listening to it again soon.