The 35th studio album of his career, Neil Young’s latest sees him return to his roots in a nostalgic homage to his folk influences. The aptly named record is a hugely personal, self-reflective anthology of acoustic renditions of classics by the likes of Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson that casts us back to the 68-year old’s early life and musical upbringing thereafter. The opening ‘letter’ – which has a narrating Young addressing his mother in what may be an allegory from his childhood – immediately sets the tone for a musical journey into the past of an iconic rock star. Much in the same vein as Johnny Cash’s final release, 2002’s American IV: When The Man Comes Around, A Letter Home portrays a maturing folk legend in his later years reevaluating his long career through an exploration of music old and new.
While Young’s interpretation of classics like Willie Nelson’s ‘Crazy’ and Gordon Lightfoot’s 1970 hit ‘If You Could Read My Mind’ somewhat lack the palpability of the originals – demonstrating a somewhat uncomfortable leap into unfamiliar pop territory – his rendition of some of the lesser known folk anthems are what essentially makes the album. Perceptive covers of tracks like Phil Och’s ‘Changes’, Lightfoot’s ‘Early Morning Rain’ and Ivory Joe Hunter’s ‘Since I Met You Baby’ radiate authenticity, almost sounding like bootleg recordings from Young’s musical heyday, while his melancholy depiction of Bert Jansch’s ‘Needle of Death’ is a fitting tribute to his own ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’.
Although largely fashioned in a highly traditional mould – the album was originally only recorded for vinyl – A Letter Home also touches on the impact of the modern. Young’s collaboration with Jack White on a number of tracks a testament to his appreciation of his contemporaries. A thoroughly emotive and archaic experience throughout – the continuous presence of the gramophone needle scratch will no doubt delight the purists – this is a fitting eulogy to one of folk music’s greatest legends. A rewarding insight into his character and inspiration, it may also prove to be a defining moment in the latter part of an exceptional career.