“Tried everything to set me free,” Townes Van Zandt sings in the opening line to “All I Need,” “but my chains keep playing tricks on me.” On Sky Blue, the new archival release from the Van Zandt estate, those twin emotions — mournful hope and self-harming despair — are on full display on an 11-song album that illustrates both the sustained formal genius and flailing aimlessness of the late, great country poet. [Find it here]
“All I Need” is one of several previously unheard originals on this collection of raw home demos recorded in the early Seventies, when the famously self-destructive songwriter was at the height of his creative powers. On would-be classics like “Rex’s Blues” and “Pancho & Lefty” Van Zandt, not yet thirty years old at the time, sounds impossibly world-weary. Either due to their low-fidelity or the simple spontaneity of the recordings themselves, there are a few moments, such as “The Hills of Roane County,” in which Van Zandt sounds nearly as exhausted as he would 20 years later, when the songwriter often struggled to merely get through gigs.
But for the most part, Van Zandt sounds focused, alert and, most of all, relaxed, on this occasionally revelatory collection of covers, rough-draft takes on future classics and previously unreleased gems. Never more so is this the case than on several of the album’s rare covers: On Richard Dobson’s “Forever, For Always, For Certain,” Van Zandt sounds like he’s discovering the song’s lonesome wisdom in real time, delighting in Dobson’s wistful wordplay. When he takes on Tom Paxton’s “Last Thing On My Mind,” he turns the Sixties folk standard into a dark country dirge.
On Sky Blue, Van Zandt rarely sounds as perfectly in command of his material as he would just a year or so later, on 1977’s Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas. Instead, in this private home recording session-turned-album, full of pain and beauty, he merely sounds like himself: tormented, tremendous, forever trying to break through his chains with a song.