CK Retro Review: The Wind by Warren ZevonPosted: September 18, 2015
The sentimental among us likely couldn’t find it in ourselves to give The Wind a bad review even if it consisted of ear-damaging shrieks committed to tape for an hour, such were the circumstances surrounding its release. But I’m here to say that, even separated from the context of its creation, this album stands tall among Warren Zevon’s imposing back catalog, and it’s a fair argument to say that it might have been his best after the one-two punch of Warren Zevon and Excitable Boy a quarter-century earlier. The guest stars all give their all, but, regardless of the shadow hanging over them cast by his illness and subsequent death, Zevon’s songs, and his searingly honest performances of those songs, carry the day, just as it had always been with this artist. (And, since we’re at the end of this series, I want to take the opportunity to wonder why Warren isn’t in the Rock Hall of Fame, for sanity’s sake?) Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “The Rest Of The Night”- The one B-sideish throwaway here, it wastes some stinging guitar from Mike Campbell. (Campbell’s bandleader Tom Petty pitches in harmony vocals, which are not his strong suit.)
10. “Rub Me Raw”- Some of the lyrics seem to reference the reaction to his illness and Zevon’s distaste for some of it, but it’s a bit too vague where a direct broadside might have worked better. Plus his raised-eyebrow approach to the blues undercuts the song’s potential power.
9. “Numb As A Statue”- Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the Jackson Browne catalog should be able to recognize David Lindley’s distinctive slide guitar here. It gives this otherwise routine mid-tempo workout some pepper. The chorus is solid even though the verses meander.
8. “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”- First of all, it might be the most overrated song in the Dylan catalog. Plus, it’s almost too on-point considering Zevon’s situation at the time. Still, when Warren beckons the doors to “Open up, open up” in the fadeout, damn if it doesn’t overcome all that.
7. “Prison Grove”- Backed by an all-star cast of vocalists playing the chain gang, including Browne, Bruce Springsteen, and Billy Bob Thornton (naturally), Zevon depicts in poetic terms a frightful,\ figurative prison. He asks for deliverance not just for himself but for his fellow inmates: “Shine on all these broken lives.”
6. “El Amor De Mi Vida”- The Latin lilt and Spanish lyrics differentiate what otherwise is a pretty straightforward piano lament. More than anything though, Zevon’s wrecked vocal makes the most impact here.
5. “Disorder The House”- Bruce donated a good one to Warren in the early days with “Jeannie Needs A Shooter.” Here Zevon returns the favor by having The Boss essentially duet on this rollicking, unkempt, hilarious commentary on the state of the depressing world, written with Jorge Calderon. Springsteen wails on guitar, can barely keep a straight face when the Lhasa Apso makes an appearance, and joins Warren in stomping all over the “davenport of despair.” Anyone thinking that The Wind is a downbeat affair should know better after hearing this one.
4. “Dirty Life And Times”- Ry Cooder’s guitar provides the essential spark while Dwight Yoakam joins Thornton for some high lonesome on backing vocals. But this is Zevon’s show, starting the song (and album) off with the unforgettable line: “Sometimes I feel like my shadow’s casting me.” He intimates that maybe his lowly state is some cosmic comeuppance for his wanton ways in the past, and yet he still shrugs off a reticent paramour by going after her sister. Unapologetic and candid, it’s the perfect tone-setter for the deep emotional stuff to come.
3. “She’s Too Good For Me”- Here Zevon enlists Don Henley and Timothy Schmitt to add bittersweet, beautiful backing to prop up his wounded lead. It’s an irresistible combination, perfect gilding for the loveliest melody on the album. When he told that girl to hasten down the wind way back when, you got the feeling it was because he knew he couldn’t hold on to her anyway. But here it appears that his own folly drives her away, which somehow makes it even more forlorn.
2. “Please Stay”- This is the one that really gets me. The vulnerability is almost overwhelming, as is the beauty, upped by Warren’s perfect choice to have Emmylou Harris contribute the harmony vocals. What must it be like to stare down death, not knowing if “the other side of goodbye” even exists? Hearing his guy who’d never capitulated to anything in his songwriting subtly admitting to his fear is staggering. And then Gil Bernal’s sad, out-of-left-field saxophone part cinches the deal. The fact that so many colleagues and friends rallied to help him out on this album leads me to believe that Zevon was far from alone at the end, unless we all are, in which case this song hurts even more.
1.”Keep Me In Your Heart”- All the guest stars back off for the closer, leaving drummer Jim Keltner, Jorge Calderon, Zevon’s longest-running, most consistent collaborator who co-wrote and played all other instruments on the track, and Warren himself for his farewell. This is the optimistic flip side to “Please Stay,” Zevon assuring us that he’ll always be around even as he’s headed to Pleasant Stream. And this dude of so many witty, wise, wicked, wonderful words leaves us with a simple “Sha-la-la” refrain, sounding absolutely at peace. And we said, “So long, Warren.”
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, arrives in November. Pre-order with the link below.)