CK Retro Review: The Envoy by Warren Zevon

Many singer-songwriters found themselves floundering amidst the sizzle and flash of the early 80’s, but the era was particularly harsh on Warren Zevon. His 1982 album The Envoy took such a commercial nosedive that he lost his recording contract in the process. The album doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be from song to song, seesawing haphazardly from the personal to the political, while reliance on synthesizers puts Zevon in a somewhat odd setting. And yet the sweetness and optimism of some of the numbers really shines. Somehow this album sounds dated and underrated all at once. Here is a song-by-song review:

TWO STARS

9. “The Overdraft”- Author Thomas McGuane helps out with the not-bad lyrics and Lindsey Buckingham contributes cackling backing vocals. But the whole thing is a little hectic.

THREE STARS

8. “The Hula Hula Boys”- A somewhat amusing tale of being cuckolded in picturesque scenery, this one shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Just enjoy it for the island lilt and move on.

7. “Ain’t That Pretty At All”- Some of the old snarl returns at long last for this one, which, truth be told, is a bit one-note. Still, it’s an entertaining note, and the idea of Zevon crashing about the Louvre is fun to contemplate. Plus his buddy Don Henley must have been listening closely, because he copped the synth-funk vibe from this one, tightened and cleaned it up, and came out with a hit called “All She Wants To Do Is Dance” just a couple years down the road.

6. “Charlie’s Medicine”- Maybe this one tries a bit too hard to be epic; it might have worked better as a quiet cautionary tale. Waddy Wachtel’s wah-wah freakout is a thrilling ride though, and the coldness of Zevon’s narrator, who goes about finishing his score even with the death of his friend still lingering in the air, demonstrates well the nastiness of the drug scene.

5. “Jesus Mentioned”- Tender acoustic guitar from Wachtel and Zevon’s voice at his most fragile and affecting carry it a long way. I’m not sure what parallels Warren seems to be drawing between the Lord and the King, but who really cares when it all sounds so delicate and pretty.

THREE STARS

4. “The Envoy”- This is one time on the record where the synths work in a grittier setting, as the insinuating music sounds like the theme to some cool cult TV show. And wouldn’t you watch such a show, as the titular character weaves his way between all of the world’s hot spots solving problems that lumbering government bodies can’t even approach? Another in Zevon’s rogues gallery of unlikely tribute subjects.

3. “Let Nothing Come Between Us”- Doesn’t this feel like it should have been a hit? It was the video age, understood, but this sweet Beach Boys-ish swayer about the need for solidity and constancy in a relationship features Zevon at his most unguarded and charming, taking advice from Mama and walking down the aisle without looking over his shoulder.

2. “Looking For The Next Best Thing”- This is the sound of settling, as Death Cab For Cutie once sang. You can say it about this song, Zevon trading in his somber piano for the warm yet cold whine of the synthesizers. And you can sort of say it about the whole album, which feels at times like Zevon wearily capitulating to commercial demands instead of traveling the “road to perfection.” So the next best thing ends up being four-star songs like these instead of uncompromising five-stars like “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner” or Desperadoes Under The Eaves.” What are you gonna do?

1. “Never Too Late For Love”- And just when you think he has given up the fight, he surprises us with a hopeful closer. Hopeful but clear-eyed, I should say. After all, the narrator’s companion is beset by all sorts of troubles. Yet Zevon encourages and props her up instead of diving down in the gutter with her and popping open a cold one. Maybe the guitars get a little too power ballad-y at the end, but the emotional pull of Zevon’s vocals is strong with this one. A counterintuitively heartfelt way to send this elusive album out.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bruce-Springsteen-Finest/dp/1442230657

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-Bob-Dylan-Finest/dp/0810888238

 

 

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