Warren Zevon: Life'll Kill Ya
Artemis Records (Epic)
Warren Zevon is not dead, not even close. You are, however, forgiven if you believed otherwise, given his excessively self-abusive lifestyle in the past and the fact that, except for the odd chance encounter with one of his earliest songs on late-night radio, he is barely a ripple on the airwaves of the new millennium. To those who know him for the one novelty song, Werewolves of London, that made an impact on the charts some twenty years ago, it would come as a great surprise that he has released thirteen albums in the past quarter of a century. It might come as an even greater surprise to learn that the present governor of Minnesota, Jessie the Body...er, Jessie the MIND Ventura, requested Mr. Zevon to perform Lawyers, Guns And Money at his inauguration. Mr. Zevon¹s compliance with the request led to the surreal scene of a former wrestler, now governor of a hefty chunk of territory, listening to a recovering alcoholic aging rocker belt out a song about rich Americans in trouble who are able to litigate, battle or buy their way out of any sin or crime.
Warren Zevon¹s songs have frequently combined an absurdist's existential sense of the world with a stingingly sarcastic social and personal commentary. Stir in a large undercurrent of cartoon violence as sub text and you have the essence of some of his finest writing: Rowland, The Headless Thompson Gunner, Excitable Boy and the aforementioned Werewolves Of London come readily to mind. In Life'll Kill Ya, Mr. Zevon, like so many of the aging boomers to whom he addresses his material, looks into the metaphysical mirror from the far side of fifty and suddenly recognizes that the unequivocal heart of the matter is able to be as simply stated as it is in the title. There is no slouching toward eternity for him; he has chosen to face his mortality armed with the same bag of tricks that got him this far: deceptively simple melodies that worm themselves into the listener's consciousness and a savage yet self-deprecating sense of humour. His lyrics range from fiercely clever in the I-wish-I'd-said-that sense to blatantly and deliberately trite observations that lead not so much to boredom, but curiously render the messenger as simply one of us, a mere mortal who has earned fully the right to be our spokesperson.
Life'll Kill Ya begins with I Was In The House When The House Burned Down. Although the title suggests a metaphor for a human being trapped in an aging, decaying body from which there is only one sure-fire escape, the message of the song in which every line but two begins with the first person, singular pronoun, suggests that the singer is the one who started the fire; the sense of the song is constructed, not unlike life itself, from a litany of missed opportunities, blown chances to be successful, incidents of irrational behaviour, and mere bad luck. Zevon's vocal range is limited; but, like the experienced pitcher in baseball who has has compensated for lost speed by developing a bag of tricks, the singer mixes it up and makes outstanding use of his limitations. In short, he survives with a snarl here, and a wavering falsetto there, and straight-ahead growling everywhere else. Mr. Zevon has never made anyone's Top Ten...nay, Top One Hundred list of the best rock singers on the planet; but he is always distinctive and effective. After all, it's rock, not Bach.
The title song combines a banal truism of a chorus ("Life'll kill ya, then you¹ll be dead") with some of the cleverest images this side of Loudon Wainright III disguised as an inventory of not only how one might expect to die but also what might happen after death...all expressed in a talking blues-style patter that is deceptive in its simplicity, trudging steadfastly toward succinct closure with the warped blessing "Requiescat in pace. That's all she wrote". This listener was humbled even as he laughed uproariously.
Although the production values on most of the songs contained on this CD are deliberately minimal and lend a rough-hewn flavour to the work, reminding us to listen to the artist, not admire the artistry (indeed, if the scenery is what you notice, then the acting is mediocre), two songs soar far above their litter-mates. Back In The High Life Again is a brilliantly understated cover of Steve Winwood¹s 1986 hit; Mr. Zevon's rugged interpretation of the lyric is right on target with the theme of struggling back to the top after falling into oblivion; you can hear the pain, feel the scars, and admire the formidable optimism of the down-and-out protagonist. This reviewer has always found the Winwood delivery of this song just a touch too smooth for the subject matter...Zevon eliminates that minor limitation. The second gem is Porcelain Monkey, a caustic, sneering indictment of Elvis Presley's "rockabilly ride from the glitter to the gloom", his descent from "hip-shakin' shoutin' in gold lame" icon to "his face on velveteen" after life killed him. The song is pure Warren Zevon, all cylinders humming, anger intact, acerbic wit aimed with dazzling accuracy.
Not all songs on Life'll Kill Ya hit their target or engage the listener in any emotional connection beyond a mildly amusing cursory listen that quickly flatlines into disinterest. Fistful Of Rain is a shallow, repetetive ghost of folksong-soft rock mergings much more capably handled by other artists such as Mr. Zevon's faithful supporter, Jackson Browne. It takes an eternity to say nothing. Ourselves To Know is a pointless narrative that ineffectively scrambles crusade imagery with the Me-Generation's self-serving quest for gold and glory and comes up empty. Like a puerile joke that build's around obscenity for obscenity's sake (look how free I am! I can say,"Fuck!") but soon becomes tedious, My Shit's Fucked Up causes a smile to flicker momentarily across the listener's face. There is a reason for the Skip button, o my children, and this is it.
Far more engaging are those songs where Mr. Zevon¹s humour is engagingly twisted and laser sharp. For My Next Trick I¹ll Need A Volunteer with lines like "I can saw a woman in two, but you won't want to look in the box when I'm through" is rendered all the more engaging by its broadly humorous imagery being made all the more dynamic by the hints of sadness sprinkled throughout. Dirty Little Religion finds the sacred being stomped on heavily by the boots of the profane in the quise of sex in such an obviously farcical way that only a person who would willingly send their hard-earned money into the hands of a cornbelt bible-thumper could take offense.
It is not all sneering humour with Mr. Zevon. There are moments when he solemnly and effectively plumbs the depths of human emotions to produce songs of substance and depth. I'll Slow You Down is such a moment. The final cut, Don't Let Us Get Sick is the ghost of Woody Guthrie come to comment on the state of the baby boomer at the onset of the new Millennium: "Don't let us get sick. Don't let us get old. Don't let us get stupid, all right?" That's not too much to ask from life, is it? Well, at least the bit about "stupid"...all right?
If you have lost touch with Warren Zevon over the years, perhaps this would be a good time to become reacquainted with him. The world, especially that part of it which is rapidly aging, needs his eccentric viewpoint and his wry commentary. This collection of songs is like a Farside anthology: most of them are entertainingly wacko, some you may not get, and, although you won't want to visit them every day, there will be moments when you think of an image or a line for no apparent reason and snicker softly behind your hand.
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