“My friend Jack has this box,” Young says as A Letter Home begins, in an opening message to his mother — but, by then, it’s already clear that A Letter Home is an album like no other, recorded in a situation so old fashioned as to seem otherworldly.
Clearly, the visit to Jack White’s refurbished late-1940s recording contraption put Young into a nostalgic mood, as he begins reeling off a series of cover songs that punctuated his life and career. And at first, as Young takes a gently ruminative spin through Phil Ochs’ “Changes,” it appears that this is as far as A Letter Home will dare go.
But Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” takes on a ghostly sense of rumination, not so much sad as a resigned. And “Needle of Death,” the Bert Jansch song that served as a foundation for his own harrowing meditation on drug use in “Needle and the Damage Done,” is somehow sadder still.
Not all of it works. Young adds new shadings to two cuts from Gordon Lightfoot (a propulsive “Early Morning Rain,” a knife-sharp “If You Could Read My Mind“), but then has less success with two head-scratching, lesser items from the Willie Nelson songbook (“Crazy,” which comes off sing-songy; and “On the Road Again,” a honky-tonk misfire). Young may, in fact, have a true passion for Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby,” but this rudimentary take doesn’t bear that out.
An equally unlikely selection of Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown,” on the other hand, gives Young a chance to well up some 1960s-era brio — giving this song a new edge. And he closes with a truly inspired choice in the Everly Brothers’ “I Wonder If I Care as Much,” turning a narrative that had always been so sweetly conveyed into something approaching a protest song.