Sunday, June 13, 2010

Townes Van Zandt - "Townes Van Zandt"

Merli Kirsimäe

"The best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that." - Steve Earle

Okay, the first listen. June 12. About 01:10 a.m. Thought number one: Why isn’t this in a Tarantino movie yet? (Or is it?) Thought number two: Where the hell have I been living? Thought number three: I must play this to my mother. Thought number four: Jeez, this is great. And so on. By the time I got to about the seventh song, it had started to rain real hard outside and it sort of fit in. I fell asleep right after the album was over and the thing that I found myself humming in the morning was this.

How should one review an album which has such a weighty sentence attached to it? I could, of course, ignore it, but then again, it is hard to do, once you have already read it and now you kind of… just cannot ignore it. What I could do, is see if there is a possibility for me to agree. One thing was certain, I did not want to do any research on him, just listen to the songs the way they are and see what connections might crop up. So this is what the review will be like, only the things that the songs themselves inspire me to write, not his life-story, the background for the songs or what anyone else might have once said about him (except for the Steve Earle quote).

Indeed, “For the Sake of the Song” (or, as it appeared, quite a number of the songs on the album) could perfectly find its spot on a Tarantino soundtrack, next to Rick Nelson’s “Lonesome Town” and Leonard Cohen’s “Waiting for the Miracle”. I would not really like to label this music with any genres, but I guess country/folk/blues wouldn’t probably be too much of a miss. If I were better familiar with Johnny Cash I would possibly be tempted to compare these two, but I am not. I’m not sure who to compare him to, to be honest, and I’m not sure I even should. Bob Dylan certainly does not come to mind, for some reason. Townes Van Zandt sounds… he just sounds… sincere. Sincere must be the word I’m looking for.

He is a story-teller. And I love story-telling. This is slowly becoming too much of a rare thing in music, because long songs are apparently too long for too many and somehow it seems that most stories are also rather long. But one does not necessarily have to make a story-song lengthy – “Waiting Around to Die” is only 2:43 (and actually most of the songs on the album are somewhere near 3 minutes). The Eagles’ “Hotel California” of course comes near 7 minutes, but who is to judge a song, if a song wants to be 7 minutes long (and does not become boring at that). But yes, story-telling, it sort of shines through this album. And because of that, The Decemberists come to mind – there still are those who dare to tell stories. Fortunately.

There are also two longer songs on the album, both 5:20, the already-mentioned “For the Sake of the Song” and “Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel”. I don’t know why, but these two are my favourites. Yes, I guess it really is delicate, complicated art to write longish songs that do not get tedious. “Fare Thee Well” has a chorus which makes me wait for it after every verse even more and more. The songs are simple, and that’s what they charm with. They are sincere, simple and pure. They invoke some kind of bittersweet nostalgia. The image that my mind has formed of him is a slightly bearded man in jeans and a check shirt walking along the highway with his guitar on his back, hitchhiking and playing in random bars to earn some money. Quite a stereotype, eh. Maybe he was the one who started it or maybe I’m terribly wrong. I don’t want to consult Wikipedia, let him stay that way, for a while at least.

Oh and there is the perfect Elizabethan neoplatonic love-sonnet (okay, not in the form of a sonnet, but content-wise) on the album, too. (And yes, I have quite recently been studying for the English literature exam.) “(Quicksilver Daydreams of) Maria” reads like it has been written by a 20th century Sindey: “Ah, the sculptor stands stricken and the artist he throws away his brushes when her image comes dancin' the sun she turns sullen with shame…” Elizabeth would be proud.

I am absolutely enchanted, I admit, and I also admit my inability to be properly critical about music that I like. I sure am glad I discovered him now that the summer is slowly unrolling, it makes me want to gather up my friends and go camping in South Estonia. Or Texas, no difference. Wander in a meadow and pick flowers and make daisy chains and see “how soft the time flies past your window at night”. He will definitely be on my soundtrack for this summer.

I don’t know whether I should apologise for not providing a nice overview of the album which is only about half an hour long. One has to find out for oneself, as they say. For now, I still must say that Nick Drake was the best songwriter in the whole world and stand on whoever wishes’ coffee table in my (non-existent) cowboy boots to say that. But who knows what the future might have in store for me, Townes may make it to my songwriters’ top five in the very near future.

1 comment:

bv said...

Conveying fascination with a record in a review is notoriously much more difficult than expressing disappointment (to the extent one might surmise that all positive reviews sound the same but every negative review has a character of its own!) so it's great to read a review that manages to communicate the joy and excitement of listening experience.

What you relate Townes Van Zandt to has a lot to do with some issues we discussed in Subcultural Studies last term - how much of cinematic Americana has grown out of that kind of singer/songwriter storytelling which is not only narrative but also atmospheric, inducing the feeling of being on the road. Songs as those may be used for soundtracks but there's a lot of generic influence, too. And indeed they inspire a whole lifestyle, get people on the road in America as well as here.