CK Retro Review: Mr. Bad Example by Warren Zevon

Warren Zevon kicked off the 90’s in fierce, funny fashion with 1991’s Mr. Bad Example. The harder rockers on the album detail a litany of evils, related by characters who don’t show an ounce of remorse. It would all be overbearing were it not for Zevon’s inimitable talent for molding this dark stuff for public consumption. And he balances it out very well with occasional glimpses of the softer side, making this a fine return to form after the ambitious but awry Transverse City.

TWO STARS

10. “Angel Dressed In Black”- This one is maybe a little too twisted for even Zevon to pull off. The drug-addled narrator waits at home for the title character’s return, and you just know that her return won’t end well. Coming right after “Model Citizen”, it might make you beg for mercy. Still, I can’t help but laugh to consider that the final verse’s opening couplet consists solely of the words “Sofa” and “Crack.”

THREE STARS

9. “Quite Ugly Morning”- It’s an interesting grinder, even if it lacks some of the details that characterize Zevon’s best work. I do like his description of the sky as “kinda chewed-on like.”

8. “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead”- I vaguely recall watching the movie on VHS when it came out, because I simply had to watch anything with Christopher Walken in it back then. The song is a fun lark, hooky with chirpy organ and a good groove, name-dropping a couple of Zevon’s musical buddies LeRoy Marinell and Waddy Wachtel along the way.

7. “Searching For A Heart”- The closer suffers a little bit from production fussiness, but it gets by ultimately on Zevon’s emotional performance. The “heart” for which he seeks doesn’t seem to be one that he’s already met, rather an ideal that gets farther away with each weary mile he travels.

6. “Finishing Touches”- Nothing fancy here, just Zevon’s bile directed intensely at a former lover. Then again, very few are better at directing bile, and the music is tough if not inventive. It’s not for the meek of heart and it’s a rather harsh way to start an album, but it’s well done nonetheless.

FOUR STARS

5. “Renegade”- When Tom Petty wrote “Southern Accents”, he did so from the point of view of an actual Southerner. Zevon attempts something similar, and you’d never know that he was actually a West Coaster by the seething contempt and wounded pride he conjures. “Next time I’d rather break than bend,” he snarls toward the end over the stately drums, the perfect words to sum up this guy’s head-space.

4. “Model Citizen”- This one sneaks up on you, a seemingly straightforward rocker about conformity that gets blacker as you go. If the weirdo from “Excitable Boy” had repressed his sinister urges and become a family man, you’d get this guy. Cuckolded by his wife and neutered by his place in society, he acts out by stalking supermarkets, threatening his kids with a lathe, and, finally, driving his motor home into a lake. Funny and scary all at once.

3. “Heartache Spoken Here”- Zevon glides easily into this C&W setting, with the help of Dwight Yoakam’s aching harmonies. It’s a fine example of his dexterity as a songwriter, showing the Nashville boys how it’s done with effortlessness and grace. Makes you wish he had the time to do a country album in his lifetime, but there’s a lot of things we missed out on due to his untimely passing.

2. “Mr. Bad Example”- Part of me wants to say that Zevon veered perilously close to caricature on this album, with this track being Exhibit A. And yet it’s hard to resist the articulate anarchy of this deranged polka, co-written with old buddy Jorge Calderon. Plus it’s easy to write a sad song, but very few artists could do out-and-out funny like Warren, which he does here by rhyming “Spokane” and “divan”, subtly implying that the only possible outcome for this inveterate do-badder was law school, and imagining novel methods of larceny, from hair transplants to wig-stealing. And it takes us around the world too.

FIVE STARS

1. “Susie Lightning”- First of all, the psychedelic, weightless tone of the music is lovely, with Zevon taking the edge out of voice to fit the setting perfectly, singing that melody with wonder and sadness intermingled. It begins as a character sketch of an elusive, globetrotting actress, but it slowly reveals almost as much about the narrator as the title character, his struggles to go on without her, his slow but steady implosion. It’s a kind of out-of-nowhere track that stands apart from much of Zevon’s work and especially from the rest of the album, but, man, is it a beauty.

(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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