But for the lack of surface noise, “Needle of Death” could just as well be a just-dug-up vinyl relic from a bygone era — so complete is Neil Young’s trip back into age-old technological nostalgia. Then, the lyrics begin to pierce through the facade of hype built up around its low-tech recording.
Yes, there’s more to this Bert Jansch track — part of Young’s just-released A Letter Home — than it’s having been produced at Jack White’s refurbished late-1940s Voice-O-Graph unit in Nashville, hipster though it may be. As Young reanimates the sad tale of a life snuffed too soon on this one-track mono side, the connection to his own harrowing song “Needle and the Damage Done” is writ large. You hear inside Young’s voice all of the anger and fear that surrounded his own experiences back then, as friend after friend fell. You hear the beginnings of the career-defining original song, still a stinging rebuke, that would follow.
We also get a sense of the broader reasons for doing this covers project, beyond the throwback idea of playing inside a booth the size of the your average broom closet. Jansch’s rumination on the death of fellow folk singer Buck Polly joins a slew of other heirloom tracks, some familiar and some not, that promise to offer new vistas on Young’s ever-mercurial career.
Idiosyncratic, and deeply personal, A Letter Home couldn’t be further, for instance, from his ferocious recent sides with Crazy Horse. The song selection is steadfastly eclectic, moving beyond the expected (Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan) into some somewhat surprising places (Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson) along the way. A just-announced deluxe box set promises loads of additional content, including yet another Dylan track, too.
It’s difficult to believe that any of them will offer the insight, not to mention the raw emotion, of “Needle of Death” — a striking example of how a cover song can open new doors into an artist’s own legacy.