Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

Consumer Guide:
  User's Guide
  Grades 1990-
  Grades 1969-89
  Expert Witness
Books:
  Going Into the City
  Consumer Guide: 90s
  Grown Up All Wrong
  Consumer Guide: 80s
  Consumer Guide: 70s
  Any Old Way You Choose It
  Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough
Writings:
  CG Columns
  Rock&Roll& [new]
  Rock&Roll& [old]
  Music Essays
  Music Reviews
  Book Reviews
  NAJP Blog
  Playboy
  Blender
  Rolling Stone
  Billboard
  Video Reviews
  Pazz & Jop
  Recyclables
  Newsprint
  Lists
  Miscellany
Bibliography
NPR
Web Site:
  Home
  Site Map
  What's New?
Carola Dibbell:
  Carola's Website
  Archive
Venues:
  Noisey
CG Search:
Google Search:
Twitter:

Warren Zevon

  • Warren Zevon [Asylum, 1976] B+
  • Excitable Boy [Asylum, 1978] A-
  • Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School [Asylum, 1980] B-
  • Stand in the Fire [Asylum, 1980] A-
  • The Envoy [Asylum, 1982] A-
  • A Quiet Normal Life: The Best of Warren Zevon [Asylum, 1986] A-
  • Sentimental Hygiene [Virgin, 1987] A-
  • Transverse City [Virgin, 1989] B+
  • Mr. Bad Example [Giant, 1991] Neither
  • Learning to Flinch [Giant, 1993] Dud
  • Mutineer [Giant, 1995] ***
  • I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (An Anthology) [Rhino, 1996] A-
  • Life'll Kill Ya [Artemis, 2000] ***
  • My Ride's Here [Artemis, 2002] A-
  • Genius: The Best of Warren Zevon [Elektra/Rhino, 2002] A
  • The Wind [Artemis, 2003] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Warren Zevon [Asylum, 1976]
I am suspicious of singer-songwriters who draw attention to phrases like "hasten down the wind," and I would suggest a moratorium on songs about the James Brothers that don't also rhyme "pollution" and "solution." But I like the way Zevon resists pigeonholes like "country-rock" while avoiding both the banal and the mystagogical, and I like quatrains like: "And if California slides into the ocean/Like the mystics and statistics say it will/I predict this motel will be standing/Until I pay my bill." B+

Excitable Boy [Asylum, 1978]
The further these songs get from Ronstadtland, the more I like them. The four that exorcise male psychoses by mock celebration are positively addictive, the two uncomplicated rockers do the job, and two of the purely "serious" songs get by. But no one has yet been able to explain to me what "accidentally like a martyr" might mean--answers dependent on the term "Dylanesque" are not acceptable--and I have no doubt that that's the image Linda will home in on. After all, is she going to cover the one about the headless gunner? A-

Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School [Asylum, 1980]
I don't know why the title tune's the title tune, except maybe to contextualize the classical interludes he composed all by himself, and Lord help us he's been hanging out with the Eagles, just like Randy Newman, who could teach him something about slandering the South--even Neil Young could do better than incest and Lynyrd Skynyrd, though the brucellosis is a nice touch. In fact, just about every song boasts a good line or three. But the only ones that score are the jokes: Ernie K-Doe's sly, shy "A Certain Girl," and "Gorilla, You're a Desperado," a satire of the Eagles, not to mention Warren Zevon. Don Henley sings harmony. Linda Ronstadt will not cover. B-

Stand in the Fire [Asylum, 1980]
If your idea of rocking out is lots of bass drum on the two (even during "Bo Diddley's a Gunslinger"), then Warren at the Roxy will do you almost as good as the climax of Live Rust. The three best songs are all from Excitable Boy, and only one of the two new originals stands the fire, but any Zevon album that bypasses "Hasten Down the Wind" and "Accidentally Like a Martyr" is the one I'll play when I need my fix. A-

The Envoy [Asylum, 1982]
What convinces me isn't the deeply satisfying "Ain't That Pretty at All," in which Zevon announces his abiding desire to hurl himself at walls--he's always good for a headbanger. Nor, God knows, is it the modern-macho mythos of the title cut and the Tom McGuane song. It's a wise, charming, newly written going-to-the-chapel number that I would have sworn was lifted from some half-forgotten girl group. If "Never Too Late for Love" and "Looking for the Next Best Thing" announce that this overexcitable boy has finally learned to compromise, "Let Nothing Come Between You" is his promise not to take moderation too far. A-

A Quiet Normal Life: The Best of Warren Zevon [Asylum, 1986]
Unlike so many songpoets, Zevon's a real writer, and as lyrics his ravers hold up better than his songpoems. So this is where Warren the Rocker kicks Warren the Poet's butt. Though the selection forgives more reveries than one might prefer, they function as a well-earned respite from dementia; only "Accidentally Like a Martyr" throws up the kind of tuneful fog Linda R. fell for on the tastefully omitted (again--maybe he knows something) "Hasten Down the Wind." Because he inhabits his tricksters, blackguards, and flat-out psychotics rather than reconstituting variations on a formula, he tops his boy Ross Macdonald any day. Thompson gunner, mercenary, NSC operative, werewolf, easy lay, he puts his head on the tracks for penance, and when the train doesn't come gets up and hurls himself against the wall of the Louvre museum. Really now, could Ross Macdonald imagine such a thing? A-

Sentimental Hygiene [Virgin, 1987]
The real question about Zevon isn't whether he's really a wimp. That's a setup. It's whether he's really a clod--whether his sense of rhythm is good enough to induce you to listen as frequently as his lyrics deserve. I'm not talking swing or funk or anything arcane, just straight propulsion of the sort punk made commonplace, and here his latest sessioneers, R.E.M. minus Michael Stipe, add a rhythmic lift to this album's sarcasm. All three songs about the travails of stardom are a hoot. "Even a Dog Can Shake Hands" updates "Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man," "Detox Mansion" sends up every pampered substance abuser turned therapy addict in Tinseltown, and "Trouble Waiting to Happen" establishes the right unrepentant distance form Warren's amply documented binges: "I read things I didn't know I'd done/It sounded like a lot of fun." Taking off even higher is "The Factory," which sings the collective ego of the working-class hero, dissenting with a touch of nasty from the tragic paeans of the best-known of Zevon's many hairy-chested collaborators, Bruce Springsteen himself. A-

Transverse City [Virgin, 1989]
With his eye on the fate of the earth, from malls and gridlock to entropy and deorbiting heavenly bodies, Zevon succumbs to the temptations of art-rock. This beats country-rock, at least as he defines it, and given his formal training it was decent of him to wait until his material demanded sci-fi keybs--arpeggios and ostinatos and swirling soundtracks. With Little Feat's Richie Hayward the timekeeper, the stasis is a little heavier than anyone concerned with the fate of the earth would hope, but you don't get the feeling Warren's hopes are high enough to warrant anything livelier. "Splendid Isolation," about solipsism as a life choice, "Turbulence," about perestroika and Afghanistan, and "Run Straight Down," about the fate of the earth on the 11 o'clock news, are exactly as grim as they ought to be. B+

Mr. Bad Example [Giant, 1991] Neither

Learning to Flinch [Giant, 1993] Dud

Mutineer [Giant, 1995]
putting the mean fun back in being unrepentant and existentially pissed ("Seminole Bingo," "Rottweiler Blues") ***

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (An Anthology) [Rhino, 1996]
His limitations are manifest and probably permanent. A gonzo drunk who thinks pounding is rocking and considers it the secret of his charm when his bassist observes, "He's just as crazy now as he was then, only now he knows it," he specializes in what his buddy Jackson Browne (who's such a wheel his best-of CD is on his real label) calls "song noir," which means he's overimpressed with Raymond Chandler and is occasionally matches his buddy Carl Hiaasen. As a tough-guy neoclassicist he of course cultivates his mawkish side (what is "sentimental hygiene," anyway?), preserved in all its lovingly worked poetry on this, his interim will and testament. His gifts have faded slowly. And if he's good enough that I'd replace a third of the 44 selections here, that means he's also good enough to roll his own. A-

Life'll Kill Ya [Artemis, 2000]
And before that it'll nickel-and-dime ya a little besides ("Life'll Kill Ya," "Ourselves to Know"). ***

My Ride's Here [Artemis, 2002]
The frustrated classical composer turned Everlys bandleader was never much of a folkie, and his sense of rhythm has always cried out for timpani. Which is to say that he was made to write rockist art songs the way Albert Einstein was made to make out like Charlie Sheen--which Zevon claims he was and I believe. Zevon's not above touring acoustic to shore up his collateral, but his records come full regalia, with musical input from his big-ticket studio buddies matching the lyrical input of his literary admirers. He's at his best in the fictional-mythic mode that prevails here--e.g., the title tune, in which Jesus Christ, Charlton Heston, and Warren Zevon know what it is to be dead. His Irving Azoff farewell Mutineer in 1995 and his minor-label debut Life'll Kill Ya were honorable mentions of the honorable kind. This step up comes just two years later, making more good new albums total over that span than Neil Young, Lou Reed, Public Enemy, Madonna, or Bob Dylan. A-

Genius: The Best of Warren Zevon [Elektra/Rhino, 2002]
For any owner of the 1996 Rhino double CD I'll Sleep When I'm Dead to buy this one too would impart new meaning to the term "sentimental hygiene," which could use it. Only five of its 22 tracks aren't nestled down in the twofer's squooshy stuff. But those who resisted the squooshy stuff then now get their reward, which sure beats the one that's laying for Zevon. All that's missing is the epithalamion "Let Nothing Come Between You" and the old Rhino title raver, presumably omitted for reasons of taste. A little late for that. The sardonic unlocks his humanity as well as his vitality, which is why this collection never wusses out. Stronger than sentiment are the melodies that proved him a pro. A

The Wind [Artemis, 2003]
Naturally he fends off death-the-fact the way he fended off death-the-theme--with black humor. "I'm looking for a woman with low self-esteem" is how he sums up the succor he craves, and he finishes off a painful "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" with impatient cries of "Open up, open up, open up." But "El Amor de Mi Vida," "She's Too Good for Me," "Please Stay," and "Keep Me in Your Heart" mean what their titles say. Only by hearing them can you grasp their tenderness, or understand that the absolute Spanish one seems to be for the wife he left behind, or muse that while the finale addresses his current succor provider, it also reaches out to the rest of us. Everyone who says this isn't a sentimental record is right. But it admits sentiment, hold the hygiene, and suggests that he knows more about love dying than he did when he was immortal. A-

See Also