Review Summary: A delightful but extremely dark and depressing self-reflection, contained into a shell of familiar sounding 1970's soft-rock.
Warren Zevon has always been a bit of a peculiar child in the music industry. Save for his 1978 LP “Excitable Boy”, and 2003’s “The Wind” (finished only months before his untimely demise), his work never met with any major commercial success or mainstream appeal. This didn’t stop him however from becoming one of popular music’s most well respected singer songwriters among critics and fellow artists alike. No surprise then that most of his records, although often commercial failures, featured guest appearances by the likes of Jackson Browne, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan, and many others.
The record that arguably best (although not necessarily musically) embodies Zevon’s strange persona is his 1976 eponymous album, which is also considered by most people to be his first proper record (the mostly forgotten “Wanted Dead Or Alive” from 1969 was his actual debut). Lyrically, this album mostly covers the artists own struggles, from his mere youth up until his life as a budding musician at that point. Zevon was the son of a professional gambler with ties to the Jewish mob boss Mickey Cohen. At around 16 years of age, he left home to pursue a career as a musician, which in the beginning proved to be erratic at best. Although at one point a session musician for the Everly Brothers, he continuously struggled with a lack of funds (almost to the point of starvation), combined with alcohol induced paranoia and depression. No surprise then that this album’s subject matter is extremely dark and depressing, even for Warren Zevon’s standards (who was known for his dark humor and sardonic wit). In fact, the lyrical content almost reads like an album by the Velvet Underground. But while the Velvets mostly painted colorful pictures of the freaks and addicts that surrounded them, Warren Zevon provides us with a dark self-reflection about his troublesome past, and the destruction he has wrought upon his own life and that of those around him. Subjects include: his troublesome youth as the son of a gambler (Mama Couldn’t be Persuaded), Heroin Addiction (Carmelita), his destructive lifestyle and flirtations with insanity and suicide (I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead) and paranoia induced by his chronic alcoholism (Desperados Under The Eaves).
When it comes down to the music, Warren Zevon’s self-titled album is probably the most piano-driven of the bunch. Although this may appear unsurprising, given his classical training as a pianist, Zevon refrained from playing the piano later on in his career in favor of the guitar, since the former reminded him too much of the depressing episodes in his early life. Other than being mostly piano-driven, this record has a sound that is very typical of the mid-1970’s LA rock scene (i.e. lots of vocal harmonies, acoustic guitars, various folk instruments, occasional string sections and some distorted electric guitar mixed firmly to the background, so that it isn’t too offensive). Sometimes, this approach is used to great effect, such as Stevie Nick’s beautiful backing vocals on “Mohammed’s Radio”, and especially the majestic instrumentation on Zevon’s magnum opus (the 2 minute long outro is nothing short of epic). At other moment’s however, this general style also serves as the album’s biggest drawback, by giving a big chunk of the album a sound that is very reminiscent of Eagles-esque and somewhat unexciting dad-rock, which isn’t exactly all too appealing. Luckily, the songwriting and lyrical content are usually strong enough to compensate for this and keep things interesting.
Warren Zevon’s eponymous album is a hidden gem (if not a masterpiece) of one of America’s most underrated singer-songwriters, who now appears to be slowly fading away from memory. Highly recommendable for fans of the folk rock genre, and artists like The Eagles, Bruce Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac (they themselves would probably urge you to buy this record). Those who are not are still highly encouraged to try to scratch the surface of this album, and unleash the dark demons that dwell inside.
A bit too long and complicated to list up here.
Desperados Under The Eaves
Frank And Jesse James
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
The French Inhaler