Neil Young delivers a vibrant, lo-fi left turn

Greg Kot: ★★★ for 'A Letter Home,' a vibrant exploration of his past.

'A Letter Home'

Neil Young

(Third Man Records/Reprise)

3 stars

Neil Young subtitled his 2012 memoir "A Hippy Dream," but he's also a punk rocker at heart in the way he magnifies his eccentricities, amplifies his weirdness, follows his indulgences no matter how inscrutable.

The latest left turn in a career that has continually veered off the highway in pursuit of whatever catches his interest is "A Letter Home" (Third Man Records/Reprise), a collection of songs that inspired him as a young folk singer. It sounds like it was recorded in a phone booth, which it essentially was.

Young cut the entire record in a restored 1940s Voice-O-Graph booth, which once allowed users to take home a vinyl record of themselves singing a song or dictating a message. Calling it a "low-fi" recording would be generous. It sounds positively crude. This from an artist famously particular about sound and an entrepreneur who recently debuted a portable digital music player designed to set a new standard for fidelity.

If you can get past the crackle and pop of the recording (and undoubtedly there are many listeners who won't), "A Letter Home" is a haunting grace note in Young's ongoing exploration of his past, which has included myriad archival recordings, a box set, the "Heavy Peace" memoir, and a recording with Crazy Horse of vintage folk songs. With compositions by Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, Phil Ochs and other artists who influenced his development on the Toronto folk scene, Young creates a time-traveling aural scrap book of what he might have sounded before he became famous. The warmth Young brings to these songs (including a couple recent ones by pals Willie Nelson and Bruce Springsteen) crackles through the haze like a long-distance call from his younger self. In the same spirit, he sounds like a kid again as he delivers a couple of spontaneous messages to his late mother. "Every once in a while all hell breaks loose," he tells mom of his life back on Earth.

Hell does break loose in these songs, in the form of loneliness, despair and quiet desperation. Young introduces his version of Bert Jansch's "Needle of Death" with melancholy whistling, as if lighting a candle at a funeral. In this context, Nelson's "On the Road" appears out of place. But it arrives as a necessary antidote to the darkness in many of these songs, and also a moving commentary on where Young is today. Accompanied by Jack White, at whose studio he recorded on the Voice-O-Graph, Young sings with a perspective and appreciation that his 68 years undoubtedly bring: "The life I love is making music with my friends."

greg@gregkot.com

CHICAGO

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