If A Letter Home, Neil Young’s Jack White-produced album from earlier this year that was recorded entirely in a 1947 vinyl recording booth, felt lived in, his latest release, Storytone, feels completely fabricated at just about every turn. At the heart of A Letter Home was something remarkable: For the first time in a long time, Young sounded like an artist with a renewed passion. He sounded at home, his nasally voice, losing its force as he ages, rumbling confidently alongside the vinyl scratches and static. Storytone boasts no such warmth or passion. Instead, it’s a misguided experiment in genre.
For this record, Young wrote a handful of songs—some of which have been performed at Crazy Horse shows as part of the group’s latest tour—and then re-worked them live off the floor with an orchestra or a big band. It’s not necessarily an unusual choice—an artist who has been making music for as long as Young has would certainly feel the need to challenge himself creatively, to push outside his comfort zone and see what happens to those old, reliable songwriting skills. The problem is that there’s such a dissonance between Young’s songwriting and the orchestral arrangements that the entire record is an aesthetic mess.
“Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” is one of Young’s prototypical protest songs—“end fossil fuels / draw the line / before we build one more pipeline,” he sings—but the environmentally friendly message is undercut by the fluttering flutes and heaving strings section. There’s urgency and doom in the lyricism, but not in the arrangement, and that disconnect between form and content defines the record; Storytone mistakes gentle instrumentation for vulnerability, and orchestral flourishes for a sense of substance. Everything here, even the big band numbers, is sleepy and uninspired. “Tumbleweed” contains contrived imagery about the beauty of nature, and plays like a languid Disney tune.
Like the orchestral pieces, the big band numbers are unremarkable. Young feels completely out of place, his voice not exactly reminiscent of the smooth crooning the arrangements call for. “Say Hello To Chicago” can’t find a balance between the soft jazz of the big band and the overbearing, fuzzed-out tone of Young’s guitar. It doesn’t help that most of the big band songs sound the same, the 4/4 tempos and relatively similar components failing to establish any sort of individual song identity. “I Want To Drive My Car” and “Like You Used To Do” are practically interchangeable, two midtempo numbers that once again present a strange blend of blues guitar and ’30s swing. If there’s a single highlight, it’s “I’m Glad I Found You” where the orchestra is kept to light background work while Young muses on finding beauty in the mundanity of relationships. It’s simple, evocative songwriting, something Young has always excelled at. The majority of Storytone presents a jumbled creative vision, though. If A Letter Home worked to privilege and highlight songwriting tools like melody and lyricism, Storytone does the opposite, overwhelming any inherent heart or soul in Young’s original compositions.