Thoughtful, perceptive and timeless
Townes Van Zandt recorded Sky Blue in 1973, but it wasn’t released until this year, which would have marked the singer-songwriter’s 75th birthday. The album is deceptively simple. Van Zandt plays delicately and sings with profundity using simple rhythms and lyrics. The beauty of Sky Blue is difficult to convey in words because Van Zandt has such a powerful understanding of his form that written language cannot adequately justify.
The album is composed of 11 unreleased recordings, some of which are original songs, some are covers and some are new recordings of previously released songs.
“All I Need” begins the album and is one of the previously unreleased songs. Van Zandt is a perceptive and powerful lyricist. Many of the songs on Sky Blue seem to be commenting on the album itself, aware of the distance that listeners must feel from Van Zandt who passed away in 1997. At the same time, the freshness of the recordings bridges that distance. “But my chains keep playing tricks on me/ and all I need is a place to lay ‘em down” he sings. This album is the place.
The titular “Sky Blue” is the other brand new song on the album. Another theme of Van Zandt’s lyrics that have a particular impact upon their release now is his observation of cycles. Van Zandt perceives both the productive and unproductive cycles around him. “Always singing the same sad song/ no wonder that I feel like way” he sings in “Sky Blue.” “Wish I was a setting sun/ on a rocky mountainside.”
Despite the difficult life Van Zandt lived, the album never appears despondent. There is a strong feeling of melancholy that Van Zandt seems like he has earned. Mixed with the melancholy is a reverence for beauty. Even as he sees the “setting sun” looks forward to “the break of day.”
His cover of Richard Dobson’s “Forever, For Always, For Certain” explores this theme with both more sadness and more hope. “Forever ain’t easy to come by” he sings. Van Zandt knows it to be true. He has defined his mortality to persist decades after his own death, but not without cost. “Forsaken must sometimes befall us/ for sorrow sometimes will call.” Van Zandt’s gentle voice and sensibility lend themselves perfectly to these lines. His guitar strumming in the song is as simple and powerful as the lyrics.
Sky Blue also includes recordings of the traditional folk song “Hills of Roane County” and Van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty.” The latter highlights Van Zandt’s guitar playing as well as his the intimacy of his vocals. The song begins with a melodic guitar intro that is mesmerizing as it is unsettling. The ability to reconcile two contradictory feelings is one of Van Zandt’s greatest powers on this album.
The album concludes with Tom Paxton’s “Last Thing on my Mind.” It is no coincidence this song ends the album when he sings “Are you going away with no word of farewell/ will there be no trace left behind?” How incredible is it that so many years after Van Zandt has gone away, he returns with these words of farewell.
There isn’t much certainty in Sky Blue. It was never certain that this album would be released, Van Zandt was never certain anyone would listen. Van Zandt plays on anyway. This album allows the listener to peer into his mind. It is intimate and thoughtful. Van Zandt is concerned with the sublime. He sees it in the setting sun and the Blue Ridge Mountains, but he also sees it in one person’s sorrow. Like the man in Caspar David Friederich’s “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,” who stands atop a rocky precipice gazing out over a vast misty landscape, Van Zandt looks at uncertainty with awe and reverence. What Van Zandt did know was that he was a great musician and clearly had a passion for it, and despite the immensity of time, this album has returned to the world with all the majesty, but none of the certainty, of “the break of day.”