The only time I ever saw US country-folk singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt play live, he told a joke about a policeman and a penguin. It was a genuinely funny story and the audience laughed accordingly. Then the gentleman in the seat next to me leaned over and whispered, “You know what? He tells that joke at every fucking show.”
Whether he did or not, the idea that the man Steve Earle once described as “the best songwriter in the whole world” didn’t put as much effort into his comedy routine as he did his songwriting is a believable one, not least because Van Zandt slaved over his songs.
Exquisitely crafted, delicately played and mournfully sung, 1972’s The Late Great might be Townes’s finest album. If you can get past his voice, which falls short of the right notes as often as it hits them, some of the songs are as good as any. Pancho And Lefty (later an enormo-hit for Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson) is here, as is If I Needed You (an enormo-hit for Emmylou Harris).
Timeless opener No Lonesome Tune lives up to its title by being one of Van Zandt’s less miserable numbers, but the crowning glory is Silver Ships Of Andilar, an epic tale of howling misery and grim, grim death.