Earlier this year, Neil Young unveiled Pono, a super-high-def audio service meant to deliver us from the sonic crimes of the earbud era. For his next act, he’s released an acoustic covers set recorded at Jack White‘s Nashville music shop on a Voice-O-Graph–a super-low-def 1940s contraption that looks like a phone booth and sounds a few steps removed from a rusty tin can and some twine. If it’s meant as some kind of joke, here’s the punch line: In its perverse way, A Letter Home is one of the most enjoyable records Young has made this century.
The track list spans canonical folk songs (Bob Dylan‘s “Girl From the North Country,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain”) and rarer jewels (Phil Ochs’ bittersweet “Changes,” Bert Jansch’s mournful “Needle of Death”). Young’s bare renditions – just his voice and an unplugged guitar or harmonica on most songs – have an unrehearsed sincerity that’s easy to imagine getting lost in a better studio. There are some head-scratchers, too: Of all Bruce Springsteen tunes, why pick a third-tier single like “My Hometown” for a solo acoustic session over literally anything from Nebraska? At its best, though, A Letter Home plays like a crackly field recording from a lost world.