Critics' Picks

Warren Zevon

Only a few weeks ago, Warren Zevon released his finest album since, well, let's just say 1987's Sentimental Hygiene. (There have been great records since then, among them 1991's Mr. Bad Example, and songs better than the albums on which they appeared, such as "Monkey Wash Donkey Rinse" off 1995's Mutineer, but it's been 13 years since his last start-to-finish winner, so leave it at that.) Titled Life'll Kill Ya, the disc sounds like a career retrospective made up of songs you've never before heard; the opener, "I Was in the House When the House Burned Down," could well have been left off Excitable Boy or Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, but only because there was no more room left for an extra bit of brilliance. There isn't a bum note there, not a wasted word or washed-out sentiment: In his early 50s, Zevon is still excitable, still a shooter. Even the Steve Winwood cover works, if only because when Zevon sings about being back in the high life again, he doesn't really mean it; his is a delivery built upon a foundation of sad sarcasm, and he delivers every word with a wink, a smirk, and such sincerity, you can't help but mistake the joke for The Truth. Those who dismiss Life'll Kill Ya for being too reminiscent of back catalog miss the point. This is what prizefighters and porn stars refer to as "a return to form." Not that the man ever went soft -- though, for a moment or a year, he did disappear.

Oh, perhaps you might have seen him filling Paul Shafer's spot on Late Night With David Letterman every now and then; Dave loves Warren almost as much as he loves the Foo Fighters, meaning Letterman has a rock critic's taste in music after all. But there was a period there when Zevon couldn't even get a deal. Until Life's release, the last thing out under his name was a two-disc retrospective from Rhino, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, which Zevon loathed. Sitting in a Hollywood eatery in the fall of 1996, Zevon explained how Rhino really just wanted to release Excitable Boy in opposite sequences on two different CDs." He said this with a thin smile, the kind unhappy people make when they're fakin' it.

That Zevon is best remembered for one "odd" (his word) top-10 hit known as "Werewolves of London" is a travesty that negates a body of work containing some of the finest, sharpest stories ever set to melody -- spanning all the way from "Frank and Jesse James," "Desperados Under the Eaves," and "Carmelita" off his 1976 Asylum Records self-titled debut to "Jesus Was a Crossmaker" off Mutineer. Outside the cult, he's remembered -- if at all -- as a novelty songwriter, a one-hit wonder who disappeared about the time the champagne went flat; to the cult, he's Hunter S. Thompson tapping out his tales on a piano. Eighteen years ago he was a superstar with few peers among the L.A. singer-songwriter set: Jackson Browne produced Warren Zevon, Linda Ronstadt covered his songs, the Eagles and Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham sang backup on his records, People sent reporters to chronicle his vodka-soaked exploits in the Hollywood Hills. He was a legend in the making, a hero of circumstance. Then he became a boxed-set subject encased in a cardboard tombstone, and he wasn't that damned happy about it.

Four years ago, Zevon recalled that in the days before his 86-year-old father died, his old man told him, "Don't look back." Still, Zevon doesn't dismiss his past, as so many songwriters are wont to do; he's still happy to perform "Werewolves of London" after all these years. "This might just be my vanity, but it doesn't seem like it's anchored to some camp phase in songwriting history," he said. At the time, he just didn't want the past to overshadow the now. And it shouldn't: Life'll Kill Ya proves him a viable option at a time when record companies have begun ignoring anyone with a driver's license. It's hard to imagine a more appropriate anthem for our times than "My Shit's Fucked Up" ("Well, I went to the doctor / I said, 'I'm feeling kind of rough' / He said, 'I'll break it to you, son / Your shit's fucked up'"). In a perfect world, something like that wins a Pulitzer, a Nobel, and a Humanitas Prize.

Zevon was (is) Randy Newman with a nasty hangover and Tom Waits without the romantic notions; all three live in Southern California and celebrate the cloudy days even as they hide from the sunny ones. There's no mistaking Zevon's cynicism for good humor, no easy laughs to be garnered from his potshots. He revels in his anger, drinks from deep cups of pessimism, plays like an angel, sings like a devil. He remains even now a storyteller who perfects the "song noir" form (Jackson Browne's words), a man who possesses "a cold eye, a boozer's humor, and a reprobate's sense of fate" (Greil Marcus' words). Whether he was describing Frank and Jesse James as "misunderstood" over a beautiful near-symphonic arrangement or trading places with a gorilla in the L.A. Zoo or doing time in Detox Mansion with Liz and Liza, Zevon set out to tell a perfect story and set it to a perfect melody. He created a world filled with men who built cages with their prom dates' bones, government envoys and headless Thompson gunners who shot and bought their way through far-off jungles around the block, con artists who ripped off their fathers' furniture stores, and swindlers who plucked every last penny out of old ladies' purses at bingo night.

And Zevon loved every last one of those bastards: They were his people, characters doing time on the fault line so sure they'd still have to pay their hotel bills at the Hollywood Hawaiian even after the rest of the state was under the Pacific. But he's a songwriter first, last, and always. Although his best friends and collaborators and heroes are all journalists and novelists -- Thompson, Carl Hiaasen, Norman Mailer, Graham Greene, and so forth -- Zevon does not want to join their ranks; he is, after all, a musician for whom the perfect word and the perfect note carry equal weight. He's concerned not just with the excitable boy's misadventures but also with how to tell it -- with a piano, with a guitar, with a wicked glare and a crooked smile. Some things never change. Not when there's a God who likes his shit fucked up. Warren Zevon performs April 8 at Caravan of Dreams.

Robert Wilonsky