CK Retro Review: Transverse City by Warren ZevonPosted: April 27, 2015
The idea of a concept album from Warren Zevon probably set his fans afire with anticipation when they heard about it, even more so when they realized that the guest list on the album was spectacular even by Warren’s standards. But 1989’s Transverse City turned out to be a bit of a letdown, one hamstrung by the obviousness of the concept (technology turning modern society into a wasteland before our eyes) and the bluntness of the musical approach (heavy synths and guitars with precious little melody.) Of course the lyrics are sharp and some of the more restrained numbers work well, but this is probably his least listenable album.
10. “Gridlock”- It’s not that Zevon doesn’t make some salient point about the frustrations of getting around in a city where it’s always rush hour. It’s just that the music he chose to accompany those points is about as fun as a three-hour traffic delay.
9. “Transverse City”- Everything, including Zevon’s breathless visions of a futuristic society gone horribly wrong and Jerry Garcia’s wild soloing, gets a little lost in the overbearing sci-fi arrangement, maybe proving Warren’s point about too much the downside of technology all too well.
8. “Down In The Mall”- There’s a light melody in there waiting to get out, but, again, things get way too heavy musically. And the observations about the pull of materialism, while solidly made, aren’t anything new.
7. “Long Arm Of The Law”- If you’re going to concoct a dystopian future that’s a metaphor for our present, you better have an overbearing police presence. If this song’s arc is predictable, it’s saved by somewhat by Zevon’s strong singing and the frenzied, dissonant piano in the instrumental break, which nicely evokes the panic of a man on the run.
6. “Run Straight Down”- Getting David Gilmour to play on this track was a coup, especially since Zevon’s downcast observations are straight out of the Roger Waters playbook; you could certainly imagine this track somewhere on Side Three of The Wall. Effecfively-rendered paranoia.
5. “They Moved The Moon”- Like an early 80’s Peter Gabriel ballad, this one moves in slow motion through interweaving synths. Meanwhile Zevon brings it back to a personal level, blaming a former lover for abandoning whim while heavenly bodies are rearranged. An interesting mood piece.
4. “Turbulence”- Zevon sounds a bit more at home in the thudding rock arrangement here than he does in some of the ray-gun settings elsewhere on the album. Even with the U.S.S.R.-Afghanistan conflict as a backdrop and lyrics sung in Russian in one part of the song, it still comes back to Warren inhabiting a world-weary, harried dude on the lam, which is a part he always played to the hilt by showing far more defiance than deference.
3. “Networking”- As with all songs written about technology circa 1989, the lyrics sound both eerily prescient and hopelessly dated. But Zevon’s one-liners also ponder the soullessness of hand-shaking and hobnobbing, one of his pet peeves which always provides fertile lyrical ground. And the music is surprisingly soulful, which will happen when you employ Benmont Tench to fill in the musical gaps with his organ.
2. “Nobody’s In Love This Year”- Mark Isham’s lovely flugelhorn that flutters about the synth-country backing is a moment of musical grace after the often-bludgeoning backdrops that can be heard all through the album. Note how Zevon uses cold, clinical terms like attrition, yield, and accrue to describe the overall dearth of genuine emotion and sentiment amidst the populace. Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of the song is when the narrator refuses to rail against the trend, instead choosing to join the loveless so as not to stand out.
1. “Splendid Isolation”- Zevon’s pop-culture riffing and pitch-black humor rev up this ode to solitude, as does his jaunty harmonica. The line “Goofy, take my hand” never fails to crack me up, but this one also takes a pretty dark turn at the end when the narrator’s insistence on hermit-life also renders him completely indifferent to those suffering and in need: “I don’t want to see their faces/I don’t want to hear them scream.”
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