Like Dock Boggs, Townes Van Zandt was obsessed with death. Both men were shadowed by their own mortality, obsessing over it and collapsing under it time and again in song. Both men ran from death in their early years, but accepted its haunting abide later in life. On Boggs’ last recordings (cut during the early ’60s folk revival and reissued last year), the man whose piercing delivery once seemed to give voice to death itself had stopped running from it. Which made for a less compelling listen, but a more stable psyche.
One has to wonder whether Van Zandt ever enjoyed such respite. His flirtations with — and prognostications of — his demise are legendary, and all too resolute. Friends of the singer swear he often spoke of his own death, predicting it would come at 52, the same age his father was when he passed. Some say he even claimed he would die on New Year’s Day, the same day his idol, Hank Williams died. He was right on both counts.
A Far Cry From Dead is a posthumous collection that presents new versions of several of Van Zandt’s best songs. He cut the vocals for these tracks at a neighbor’s home studio earlier this decade; the instrumental accompaniment was added after his death by some of Nashville’s hottest pickers. Listening to these songs, it’s doubtful Van Zandt would have agreed with their heavy-handed arrangements, but it’s equally doubtful he would have had the energy to change them. His updated readings of timeless tunes such as “For the Sake of the Song” and “Waitin’ Round to Die” don’t offer the tidy epilogue that Boggs’ latter-day work provides. It’s not that Van Zandt’s talents had faded or grown cozy — quite to the contrary, his voice took on an aged charm that, if anything, seems even more befitting the source material — it’s just that he still sounds so damned inconsolable. When he sings “I could die in the morning, ain’t no one would know,” you have to believe him, even if you know it isn’t true.
A Far Cry From Dead contains two previously unissued Van Zandt compositions, “Sanitarium Blues” and “Squash”. The former has the makings of a Townes classic: A devastating tale of a family half-wit’s struggle with an uncaring mental institution, it features Van Zandt’s vocals vari-speeded down to an eerie slur, a brilliant touch. But the accompaniment is completely afoul of Van Zandt’s intended tone. Out of his hands, “Sanitarium” becomes a pale, fatuous rocker.
“Squash” is a more humorous tale, in the tradition of Van Zandt’s classic “Talkin’ Karate Blues”. It’s Townes at his most as lighthearted — and maybe that’s the best epilogue of all. It’s certainly the easiest to swallow.