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Ever mercurial, Neil Young has conspired to make an album at once touching and gimmicky. A Letter Home was made in a 1947 Voice-O-Graph machine, a telephone box-sized cubicle for making instant recordings on to vinyl records. (There used to be one on the Empire State Building’s 86th floor observatory: imagine all those lost records of crackly voices saying they’re on top of the world, ma.)
The only working Voice-O-Graph booth open to public use belongs to ex-White Stripes frontman Jack White; it’s his machine that Young plus guitar have crammed into in order to record the new album. It starts with him addressing his dead mother, sounding uncannily like a folksy Jimmy Stewart. Then comes a series of covers, some too well worn for even Young to make an impression on (Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country”), others delivered with simple power, none more so than Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death”.
Young’s trembling voice emerges from a fog of hisses and crackles: the sound quality is appalling, a perversely Luddite act. Yet the decrepit recording technology makes a kind of sense too, giving lyrics about loss and impermanence a fragile, tenuous quality.
“You know that ghost is me,” he quavers in Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind”: not even the most sophisticated recording technology could make him sound ghostlier.
A Letter Home