High, Low and In Between

by: Townes Van Zandt

In 1972 Van Zandt cut two perfect albums, one of them being High, Low and In Between. Tomato Records' owner Kevin Eggers, who was responsible for many of Van Zandt's best records, produced this album with minimal backing that keeps the spotlight on Van Zandt's vocals and his songwriting. The record includes "To Live Is to Fly," the song Van Zandt considered his best, "No Deal," an absurd hard luck blues, a couple of gospel songs, "Mr. Gold and Mr. Mud," one of his most baffling poetic tunes, and the title track, an aching tale of heartache and confusion. The spare arrangements are as much folk as country, the two genres Van Zandt was most comfortable with. "Two Hands," a rollicking spiritual with bright female backing vocals and tinkling gospel piano opens things up. It's the most straightforward gospel tune Van Zandt ever wrote, full of exuberant joy. "You Are Not Needed Now" radically changes the pace, with its bleak, hopeless message accented by weeping pedal steel and Van Zandt's plaintive vocal. The title track is another forlorn ballad, cut with standup bass and piano providing a sorrowful counterpoint to a vocal that details lost connections, hard work and alienation. It's almost a prayer for salvation, although the lyrics don't shy away from the difficulties of finding comfort in a cold world. "To Live Is to Fly" is another Van Zandt classic, full of the ambivalence that makes his love songs so affecting. Piano and standup bass give the song a gospel feel, while the lyrics address the fleeting nature of love and the loneliness of life on the road. There are two talking blues on the album, "No Deal," which is full of absurd scenarios and Van Zandt's fatalistic humor, and "Mr. Gold and Mr. Mud" a surrealistic tale of a card game between two gamblers with nothing to lose or win, using the language of gambling and poker to describe the struggles of life. Van Zandt crams an amazing amount of brilliant imagery into the songs brief two-minute duration, a performance that's both impressive and impenetrable. "Highway Kind" is a minor-key blues, a brief aching tune in which Van Zandt addresses the perfect lover he's never met while taking full responsibility for his failings and foibles. He sounds so isolated and disconnected from the world that it's hard to listen to. "When He Offers His Hand" is a simple song of faith, without Van Zandt's usual ambivalence or humor, while "Blue Ridge Mountains" is a rewrite of a traditional bluegrass tune that balances spirituality and carnality into its bubbly arrangement. Musically low key, but emotionally potent, High, Low and In Between shows Van Zandt digging deep into his troubled psyche and turning his heartache into soul-stirring art. ~ j. poet

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