Zevon is a fellow struggler

Published June 1, 2000

WARREN Zevon’s 15 minutes of fame came more than 20 years ago, when his 1978 album Excitable Boy made him a star, buoyed by the top 10 hit, Werewolves of London. Only the most dedicated fans of his unique craft – often macabre, always witty songs set to muscular, tuneful rhythms – have followed the trickle of a career that followed. Dropped by Warner’s in 1982, he has released albums on a number of labels, but the last one was 1995’s Mutineer. [pullquote]Now, Zevon is back. At age 53, his wry ways and topical fixation have been given an incredibly sharp focus. It is, in short, his own aging and the inevitability of death for all human beings. The result is the ninth album of a 30-year career, Life’ll Kill Ya.

The sick wit that has always been Zevon’s trademark often makes him the loser you love. I Was in the House When the House Burned Down, which opens the disc, sees him look back at snapshots of his hard-lived life. I’ll Slow You Down is an admission to a lover that she is better off without him. Hostage-O and Dirty Little Religion focus on the carnal, while For My Next Trick I’ll Need a Volunteer and Don’t Let Us Get Sick see him wax philosophical. Indeed, the external subjects are rare this time around. There is no Bill Lee or Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner to be found. There are, however, two exceptions. Porcelain Monkey is a thinly-veiled observation of the end of Elvis Presley’s earthly days, while Ourselves to Know paints the Crusades of the middle ages in an uncommonly personal way. Comparisons have often been made between Zevon and Randy Newman. Both are pop crafters whose melodies are often piano driven. In fact, one can certainly hear Newmanesque licks and progressions in the title track Life’ll Kill Ya. Their tales are usually dark and razor-sharp indictments of contemporary culture and mores. However, Newman and Zevon are cut from a different cloth. Whereas Newman’s lyrics and observations usually have a sneering, if accurate, tone, there is more an “aw, shucks” feel to Zevon. He is a fellow struggler. In that sense, the album’s one cover song is a neat glue to the work. Zevon’s moments of fame were shortened by usually loutish, often under-the influence shows in the late ’70s. He turns Steve Winwood’s Back in the High Life into a tender ode to survival. As he sings, “I’ll be back in the high life again. All the doors that I once closed will open up again,” one gets the sense that both Zevon and the listener are resigned to the fact that this sort of fame will not come his way again. The awareness of earthly mortality is certainly of interest to the Christian listener, even if Zevon’s humour is often crude and sometimes vulgar. As for Christian references, they are uncommon, but present. There is the image, “I met the man with the thorny crown. I helped him carry his cross through town” in I Was in the House When the House Burned Down, and “maybe you’ll go to heaven” is posed as one of the possibilities in the title track. Were this earthly life the be-all and the end-all, this album would be ultimately depressing. In the Christian’s “sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life,” they can find it amusing. Wilfred Langmaid is Anglican chaplain of the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, and music critic for the Fredericton Gleaner.


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