Warren Zevon (2008 reissue)

Warren Zevon

Rhino, 2008


REVIEW BY: Julia Skochko


Warren Zevon's eponymous 1976 release isn't technically his first album (that honor goes to 1969's misbegotten Wanted: Dead or Alive). But if L.A.'s actresses get to revise history ("I'm 29!  And my lips were always horrifically carp-like!"), why shouldn't its morbid troubadour? Technicalities, schmecknicalities... let's ignore 'em and call Warren Zevon what it is:  not only a debut, but one of the greatest in the history of rock. It's big, ambitious, brazenly confident. And like Zevon's messy, bittersweet legacy, it's a snarl of contradictions.  It feels like the product of years of creative development... and paradoxically, like a beginning. The lyrics' sarcasm and swagger belies startling, sometimes heartbreaking humanity. And despite being fine-tuned to within an inch of Aja, tracks never sound slick or overproduced. Zevon's ego was allegedly as big as his vodka habit - which makes his habit of hiding songs' true complexity even more remarkable.

Seventies SoCal rock didn't need to be touching or technically masterful. It had to sound good in amphitheaters, around campfires, burbling from oversized AM radios. For many artists, easygoing inanities were a viable path to stardom. Fortunately for musical history (if somewhat less so for his career), Zevon couldn't have written "Peaceful Easy Feeling" if you'd held a gun to his head. He wasn't a star. He was an artist with a capital "A"... irascible, unpredictable, madly brilliant and brilliantly mad. Plenty of his peers were more radio-ready. Damned few of them were writing songs like "Desperados Under the Eaves." It begins with a single somber violin and escalates into an operetta of self-destruction (with chorus courtesy of a wheezy air conditioner). Does a bar ballad have any right to be so epic, so evocative? Does it matter, when it includes verses like "Don't the sun look angry through the trees / Don't the trees look like crucified thieves / Don't you feel like desperados under the eaves?"

It was no "Take It Easy"... nor were its royalties. Material and man were both too dark and too complicated for widespread acclaim. But as his still-fanatic fan base and Rhino's lovingly-packaged reissue attest, Warren Zevonmy_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 is a classic.

Zevon's gift for orchestration is immediately apparent. "Frank and Jesse James" is as sweeping and heroic as Copland. But while meticulous, it's also masculine. Crystalline piano work and vibrant fiddles never overshadow the song's inherent swagger. "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" is an even slyer display of his talent. You're too busy grinning at the spectacle to notice the rigging and fly lines. It's pure drunken clamor. There's bluesy harmonica, Spanish catcalls, snares crashing like they're being hurled across a room. It's loud, it's lurid... and it's still assembled like a puzzle box.

There are less-intricate tracks, of course. Odds are good you've heard them - "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," "Join Me in L.A." and others have been repeatedly covered. The former is a breezy rocker spiked with Zevon's acidic humor ("she was a credit to her gender / she put me through some changes, lord / sort of like a Waring blender"). The latter's sexy and sprawling. A chorus of sultry women's voices and a funky backbeat swell and fade like an L.A. heat wave.

Moderation isn't Zevon's forte, however. Less-intense tracks tend to be slicker (and weaker) than the emotional heavy hitters. "Backs Turned Looking Down the Path" is the album's most disappointing cut. The slide guitar and mellow vibe are pleasant but generic. "Mama Couldn't Be Persuaded" (an autobiographical account of turbulent family life) is a similarly-slight piece of roadhouse rock. It's listenable, and on many albums, that would be sufficient. Warren Zevon, though, is notable for several emotional gut-punches. And when it came to your tear ducts, Warren was one hell of a mean drunk.

"Hasten Down the Wind"'s mournful guitar ebbs and flows over a metronomic backbeat. It's a simple, intimate backdrop for a bittersweet tale of love slipping out of reach ("she's so many women / he can't find the one who was his friend"). Augment it with sufficient quantities of booze and bitterness and you've got "The French Inhaler". It's one of rock's ultimate kiss-off songs; the final choir of voices is wonderfully, cruelly accusatory. No-good women have done their babies wrong since time immemorial. Few of 'em have been dismissed with anything as perfect as "another pretty face / devastated."

Neither "Hasten" nor "Inhaler" is the album's most-wrenching track, however. For a gentle, slow-rolling mariachi number, "Carmelita" is a showstopper. One of Zevon's best songs, it's a gritty fable of addiction and desperation (" well I'm sitting here playing solitaire / with my pearl-handled deck / the county won't give me no more methadone / and they cut off your welfare check"). In the warm, wistful liner notes, friends mention that Zevon knew when he'd created something which would bowl people over... and that "Carmelita" was the first song he played for everyone from girlfriends to collaborators.

It was among collaborators that his legend began. For much of his career, he was a "musician's musician." Crowds didn't stop him on the street... but Dylan stopped by the studio from time to time. Since his death - dignified, graceful but tragically early - Zevon's work has attracted a wider audience than ever. Warren would appreciate the irony. One hopes, though, that he'd also appreciate the validation. Much of his contemporaries' work sounds dated and overrated. Warren Zevon survived the 70's, the digital revolution and a few dozen Eagles reunion tours. The man may be getting some much-needed sleep... but his music's still alive and every bit as ornery.

Rating: A

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© 2008 Julia Skochko and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Rhino, and is used for informational purposes only.