I’m back at work after a fun weekend hanging out in Vancouver for the weekend, celebrating my wedding anniversary with Sheila, buying shoes and clothes, meeting up with friends and having a few drinks along the way. For exciting details, check out my wife’s blog here.
Fun as it was, the last two weekends have had a lot of activity and I am worn down. Once I get through the next four days I’m doing something wholly relaxing for the weekend. Yes, it will include listening to music.
Disc 986 is…At My Window
Artist: Townes Van Zandt
Year of Release: 1987
What’s up with the Cover? Townes hangs out in what looks like a very old country kitchen. Outside, a winter wonderland stretches away into the blue-lit distance.
Here’s a fun fact: Townes is wearing the same shirt the wears on the cover of the 1995 “Live at the Bluebird Café” album (reviewed back at Disc 231). I guess when Townes liked a shirt, he really liked a shirt.
How I Came To Know It: When I reviewed Townes’ concert album “Live at McCabe’s” there was a song (“Snowin’ On Raton”) I really liked, but didn’t have on any of my studio albums. A bit of sleuthing revealed it was from “At My Window”. Then it was simply a matter of waiting patiently for it to show up in the local record store. It took a while, but finally happened a couple of years ago.
How It Stacks Up: I have 10 Townes Van Zandt albums. I had reserved space at #9 for “At My Window” but it totally exceeded my expectations and ended up in sixth, displacing three previous reviews in the process.
Ratings: 4 stars
After nine years without releasing any new material, you might feel wary about a new Townes Van Zandt album in 1987; I certainly did. However, “At My Window” proves that while Townes was no longer prolific, his talent was intact and just waiting to be tapped again.
Despite coming nearly a decade later, Van Zandt’s signature sound remains; gentle rolling melodies climb up and down in a way that is natural and easy. It almost feels like you’ve heard these songs a hundred times, but that is just Van Zandt’s talent for writing in a timeless style. These could be the songs of a 16th century troubadour as easily as a 20th century folk singer.
Van Zandt’s voice is starting to show signs of wear and tear. He’s only 43 years old here, but they have been 43 hard years, most of them filled with a lot of liquor and late nights. Fortunately, Van Zandt has never been about scintillating vocals so the loss is small. Like Leonard Cohen, he’s added a bit more gravel and dust as he’s aged, but it just makes the songs seem worn in and comfortable.
The production on the album is sparse and restrained and could almost fit into Townes’ mid-seventies period, it if weren’t for the occasional very eighties flourish of saxophone. These flourishes aren’t bad, because they are restrained and seem to understand that a horn’s job in a country song is to splash a little colour around the edges, not replace the guitar. Kudos to saxophonist Donny Silverman for not overdoing it.
The album is a tight 10 songs and 33 minutes. Considering how long it had been since Van Zandt had released an album, I wish there was a bit more content. Van Zandt even does a third version of “For the Sake of the Song” which is beautiful but after studio versions on 1968’s “For the Sake of the Song” and 1969’s “Townes Van Zandt” I’m not sure we needed another.
Fortunately the other nine songs are new content and don’t disappoint. The album opens with “Snowin’ On Raton” and it was as good as a studio song as the live version that drew me to the record in the first place. It is Van Zandt at his best; worn out and leaving town with a fresh heartbreak in the rearview mirror:
“Bid the years goodbye, you cannot still them
You cannot turn the circles of the sun
You cannot count the miles until you feel them
You cannot hold a lover that is gone.”
Brilliant stuff, where all the images in the first three lines wander ungrounded in your mind, only to be anchored by the fourth line, resolving the heart of the song’s true topic; love neglected over time, and an idealized past that turned into the dreadful present with same inexorable burning ferocity of the sun.
The album is packed with lyrics that sneak up on you, and final lines in quatrains that land like the thud of a hammer. This is an album where love and love’s collapse are two sides of the same coin, landing out of our control on the hard pavement of roads that Townes has walked too long. Even hopelessly romantic songs like “At My Window” and “Little Sundance #2” have a weariness to them that in their best moments exude contentment and at their worst, surrender. Van Zandt isn’t the first person to feel powerless in the face of love, but he’s one of the best there’s ever been at capturing it in song.
And Van Zandt makes it all seem so damned idyllic amidst the darkness. His imagery encourages you to relax into what is happening, and accept the good and the bad as it comes to you, knowing you couldn’t do otherwise if you tried. As he sings in the title track “At My Window”:
“Living is dancing
Dying does nothing at all
Baby and I are laying here
Watching the evening fall”
Van Zandt’s own evening fell too soon, but “At My Window” is a nice parting gift near the end of a hard road for one of our era's great storytellers.
Best tracks: Snowin’ On Raton, At My Window, Buckskin Stallion Blues, Still Looking For You, The Catfish Song