By Chris Moore:
RATING: 5 / 5 stars
Technically not his debut album, Warren Zevon is the first true Zevon record.
It came after quite a series of career turns, beginning with Zevon and high school friend Violet Santangelo forming lyme & cybelle and nicking the charts with the co-written “Follow Me.” Although it was clear that Zevon had tremendous potential — “(You Used to) Ride So High,” anyone? — he was replaced after two singles by the snooze-worthy Wayne Erwin (who somehow ended up firing Santangelo).
So, Zevon spent time as a songwriter (try “Outside Chance,” which the Turtles covered), session musician, and even jingle writer. Then, as Zevon put it, “Wanted Dead or Alive [his solo debut] was released in 1970 to the sound of one hand clapping.” Supposedly, there was a second album in the works, but information on that is very difficult to find.
After working as the band leader for the Everly Brothers, both as a duo and as solo artists after their breakup, Zevon had the good fortune to be noticed by Jackson Browne. Their collaboration led to Browne producing Warren Zevon.
It was such a long time in coming, but this is an album with some of the most beautiful, heartbreaking, lyrically interesting songs ever written. The performances are largely minimalist, but resplendent in their tight yet natural arrangements. With a blend of humor and straight-faced realism that was never equaled by another artist, always poetic, the eleven tracks on Warren Zevon explore and explode the sides of ourselves that we don’t like to acknowledge.
Even the opening ballad “Frank and Jesse James” paints these infamous outlaws as victims of the turning political tides of the American government. This version of the story may be skewed, and yet this is a theme that continues to have relevance to the present day and represents an aspect of our nation that few — particularly those in power — wish to take ownership of.
Sales were not overly impressive, but A&R men were impressed, like Burt Stein who reflected, “I got to run with that record and we got the ball rolling for Warren. It was warmly received…”
The critics agreed, which found Newsweek describing Zevon as a “refreshing rarity” and The Village Voice hailing him as an “upcoming major artist.” Of course, unsurprisingly, Rolling Stone gave a positive review tempered with such qualifiers as “despite its imperfections” — um, which would those be? — and “on its own artistic terms it is almost a complete success” — where do they find these numb-skulls? What kind of wishy-washy middle-of-the-road garbage this was, and RS‘s Stephen Holden didn’t stop there. He noted that it doesn’t have the “obvious commercial appeal of an Eagles album,” as if that is something that any serious rock artist would strive for.
Without question, without qualification, Warren Zevon is a truly classic album, one that you can listen to repeatedly without ceasing and without tiring. It is one of those albums that, particularly while driving at night, you could lose yourself in if you’re not careful.
The pinnacle comes right at the middle with “The French Inhaler,” an exploration of Zevon’s question: “How you gonna make your way in the world, woman, when you weren’t cut out for working?” His lyricism is unsurpassed here, as he tosses barbs (“You said you were an actress, yes, I believe you are…”) and voices biting observations (“Your face looked like something death brought with him in his suitcase…”). The final movement of the song, with the title of the song, is poignant. There is a sense of loss here that pervades many of the songs on this album, and yet he manages to create these seedy and somber landscapes in the form of focused rock’n’roll tracks.
Elsewhere, the music is soothing (“Mohammed’s Radio”), utterly devastated in its heartbreak (“Hasten Down the Wind”), energetically defiant (“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”), and mournfully beautiful (“Desperadoes Under the Eaves”). This is not even to account for some of the best tracks on the album, single-worthy songs like the definitive Zevon-esque track “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” (the song I wish he’d been known for by the general public, rather than “Werewolves of London”), the compelling “Backs Turned Looking Down the Path” and the downright catchy “Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded.”
What keeps me coming back to Warren Zevon are the fascinating lyrics which drive these tracks. If you’ve heard the piano demos of any of these songs, then you know what an undeniably brilliant songwriter and performer Zevon is. Instrumentally, I find new riffs, solos, and other more subtle aspects of Waddy Wachtel and David Lindley’s guitarwork each time I listen. Bob Glaub and Larry Zack pull off bass and drum duties (on most tracks) with more than a session musician’s proficiency; there is a creativity and finesse here that I delight in on each track.
And have I mentioned how much I look forward to Carl Wilson’s vocal arrangement on the tag of the album closer, “Desperadoes Under the Eaves”? Whenever you call a Beach Boy in for vocal duties, you’re pretty much assured a heavenly vocal presence that many have tried and few — perhaps none — have actually duplicated.
For these and so many other reasons, Warren Zevon is the first true Zevon record and ranks among the best of his career. This is not to say he peaked on his quasi-debut album; rather, it is to say that Warren Zevon deserves more credit than many would give it when they refer to the “potential” expressed by these eleven songs.
Truly, this is not the lead-off effort; this is the first home run of an under-appreciated career.