Townes Van Zandt

The Late Great Townes Van Zandt

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This is the second perfect album Van Zandt cut in 1972, a complement to High, Low and in Between. Together they contain the highest points of his brilliant but erratic career. The Late Great may be a bit stronger, with classics like "Pancho & Lefty," "No Lonesome Tune," and "If I Needed You," but there's not a weak track here. Van Zandt's voice is in top shape, the song selection is superb, and Jack Clement's understated production gives the tunes a timeless quality. He eschews the hokey touches that make parts of Our Mother the Mountain sound corny, opting for a subdued sound that uses light touches of folk, pop, and country music in their arrangements. The set opens with "No Lonesome Tune," one of Van Zandt's more hopeful songs, delivered with mandolin, quiet pedal steel, and piano complementing Van Zandt's poignant vocal. "Sad Cinderella" and the epic "Silver Ships of Andilar" are mysterious ballads with oblique lyrics, open to many interpretations. In the Van Zandt documentary Be Here to Love Me the singer says that his goal is to write songs so peculiar that "nobody knows what they mean, not even me." He succeeds with these two numbers. "Sad Cinderella" could be a song of recrimination to a woman at the end of an affair, or a disillusioned letter to an America caught in the contradictions of the Vietnam War, or perhaps just an exercise in poetic language. Whatever its meaning, Van Zandt's pained vocal and sparse piano fill it with longing and tenderness. "Andilar" is one of the most atypical tunes in Van Zandt's catalog, a five-minute epic of war and betrayal filled with images of sinking ships, icebergs, battle, and death. Acoustic guitar, a wailing female background chorus, and a sweeping orchestral arrangement give it a cinematic feel, and again it could be about Vietnam, some long forgotten European war, or his own inner turmoil. Whatever the meaning, its scope is cinematic and full of Van Zandt's singular poetry. "Pancho & Lefty," Van Zandt's greatest commercial success, has a folk/pop arrangement with mariachi horns coming in on the coda to give it a Mexican flavor. It's the best rendition of the tune Van Zandt ever cut. "If I Needed You" is purely romantic, one of Van Zandt's most understated love songs, simply sung over a bouncy country rhythm. The album's three covers get made over into Van Zandt's own image. Guy Clarke's "Don't Let the Sunshine Fool Ya" uses pedal steel, female backing vocals, and bluesy guitar to deliver a message that's full of ironic humor. Hank Williams' "Honky Tonkin'" is pure country, with Van Zandt's vocals siding up the scale to crack on the high notes just like Hank Sr used to do. "Fraulein" uses a fiddle to add poignancy to Van Zandt's vocals on this post-WWII tune about a GI's impossible love for a German girl. The album closes with the goofy spiritual "Heavenly Houseboat Blues," that sees Van Zandt sailing down the river Jordan in a slowly sinking silver houseboat. He gargles the last verse with a mouth full of water, ending the set on an odd, giddy note.

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