By Daniel Ford
I own Neil Young’s “Fork in the Road.”
I have never listened to it. Not one note, verse, guitar lick. Nothing. As much as you love an artist—and I love Young to the point I wrote a jewelry blog on his songs that mention diamonds and jewels—sometimes you can’t buy into the premise of a particular album. Young’s love letter to his car, and the auto industry in general, was such an occasion.
However, I was all in after hearing that he recorded an acoustic album in Jack White’s 1947 Voice-O-Graph vinyl recording booth that captures sound as if it were from a different, more musically advanced, era.
I’ve never been a Jack White fan, but his musical contraption brings out the best in Young, who has had a run of so-so albums (“Le Noise,” a few good tunes, but dispensable; “Psychedelic Pill,” not bad, but Crazy Horse tends to bring out some of Neil’s least endearing qualities, like thinking a prolonged guitar solo consisting of feedback is a good idea;” and “Americana,” which I think is probably underrated, but still not a great album). I was primed to hear great Neil Young.
I had read the pissant, whiny, worthless comments on iTunes from listeners that hated the sound quality and wanted a clean, clear, and boring album that wouldn’t offend their babied, digital ears. You know what? They would have shit on that too. Because that’s what online commenters do. I hate them.
So there I was, filled with pseudo-hipster rage and drinking my eighth cup of coffee, about to start the writing half of my day. I opened up my iTunes (I’m a digital homer too, but what of it?). I needed Neil and I needed him now.
First of all, the sound quality was anything but crappy. It’s beautiful. Even digitally, it haunts you the way old recordings of George Gershwin, Robert Johnson, Miles Davis, and Edith Piaf do. The whole album feels like it’s a relic of the past and brand new at the same time.
Every song choice is inspired and Young delivers them in a beautifully stripped down manner reminiscent of Johnny Cash on his last studio albums before he died (you know, the ones you could actually hear Cash dying on). However, while Cash’s albums were dark and brooding, there’s a real joy that comes out of Young’s “A Letter Home.” His premise is built on him writing a letter to his dead mother—for more on her, check out Jimmy McDonough’s Young biography Shakey…you won’t be disappointed—so there’s a reverence and hopefulness that permeates each track. Even the above “Needle of Death” never completely melts into completely into dark despair.
His covers of “Crazy,” “Girl From North Country,” and “Reason to Believe,” led me to brew more coffee and open up a fresh notebook. My musical mind and heart were on fire and my muse demanded I write words accompanied by this splendid music. That’s what good music is supposed to do: propel you to act and not just listen passively. If you’re not completely inflamed with the holy writing spirit listening to this album, then there might not be hope for you as a writer or human being.
Young has long been an advocate for bringing music back to its true, vinyl form (his Pono music player raised more than $6.2 million earlier this year), and this album goes a long way in proving that digital music is lacking a certain charm that past music fans got to enjoy in full force. Dave Grohl got yanked of a Grammys stage once because he had the nerve to tell today’s musicians that music didn’t have to be perfect to be good. This album proves why Grohl is forever right.
Young also proves why most of today’s music sucks. The old masters keep experimenting while the next generation overproduces the next cloud-ready radio hit you’ll hate after the 4,000th time you hear it. I hope archeologists find this album in the future and not Justin Bieber’s next manufactured polished pop-turd.
Buy into White and Young’s premise and let it wash over you like a classic 1940’s noir film. It probably sounds better on vinyl, but you’ll appreciate it on anything you listen to it on if you’re a Neil Young fan or an advocate of great music.