Dec 102008

Warren Zevon, “The Factory”

Warren Zevon, “Detox Mansion”

As I mentioned yesterday, I finally picked up Warren Zevon‘s largely overlooked Sentimental Hygiene, his 1987 release with members of R.E.M. and other guests that signalled a return to form following a particularly long and intense period of drug and alcohol abuse, even by this hard-living cynic’s standards. Five years after Zevon’s unexpected premature death by lung cancer (who didn’t think he would OD?), this album stands as a bookend to the artist’s typically other overlooked work, 1980’s Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School. Considering I’m listening to this album for the first time ever and it sounds exactly like every other album I’ve ever heard by the guy, my initial thoughts follow in cut-up fashion. My thanks to a variety of critics and bloggers, who did the heavy lifting and posed, sometimes unintentionally, a couple of piercing questions.

In 1987, following a well-publicized fall off the wagon upon the release of The Envoy, West Coast-based songwriter Zevon returned from a 5-year lull in album releases with Sentimental Hygiene. Featuring a newly muscular sound that verges on Springsteen territory, the album, his strongest record in years, zoomed with renewed vigor, well-placed cameos, and Zevon’s trademark mix of black humor and heartache. It was both of a piece with his previous rough-edged L.A. session sound and a shameless attempt to modernize the part of his catalog that is his goofy dreck.

When Zevon hit the scene with his 1976 LP, Warren Zevon, his association with The Eagles and Jackson Browne linked him to Los Angeles’ touchy-feely singer-songwriter crowd. But his best songs had the acerbic bite, dark sense of humor, and pounding rock & roll heart that his pals’ music lacked. Not that all of his music was dark and violent. His oveure contained some straight-out comedy as well, including “Werewolves of London.”

The real question about Zevon, however, was whether his sense of rhythm was good enough to induce you to listen as frequently as Bob Dylan. A few members of the L.A. Mellow Mafia (David Lindley, Waddy Wachtel, Don Henley) made cameo appearances on the new album, his strongest record in years, but for most of the sessions Zevon wavers between blaming himself and bum luck for working with the members of R.E.M. minus Michael Stipe (for the most part; he appears on “Bad Karma”). At this point, the band was about a year away from its mainstream commercial breakthrough. Defying the odds, they made for a solid, no-nonsense rhythm section – just straight propulsion of the sort punk made commonplace – and gave the music a passionate, forceful backbone that was largely absent from The Envoy (not to mention rocking harder than one might expect from the kings of jangle pop).

Among the album’s other inspired hairy-chested collaborators are Neil Young, whose jagged guitar runs embroider the title cut; Bob Dylan, whose howling harmonica is the ideal punctuation for the Springsteen-gone-psychotic “The Factory”; and George Clinton, who adds a bed of menacing sitar noodlings to “Leave My Monkey Alone.”

Warren Zevon, “The Heartache”

Between amply documented binges, Zevon prowls the Hollywood hills, painting ominous, hard-hitting portraits (“Boom-Boom Mancini”) and lashing out at duplicity (“Even a Dog Can Shake Hands”). But the 5 years since his last album, The Envoy, as well as the experience of detox, had mellowed him a bit. When he sings “Reconsider Me” (with Don Henley on background vocals) and, in a similarly straightforward fashion, “The Heartache” (with Jennifer Warnes), you have to wonder: Could this be the man who, on 1978’s Excitable Boy, chortled about rape, mutilation, and Patty Hearst? His criticism is now most often directed at himself. Zevon turns his forked tongue inward on “Detox Mansion.” His alcohol rehab experiences bubble over the top in the alternately hilarious and gripping song, resulting in the album’s funniest, hardest hitting and ultimately, most rewarding moment. This mix of angry rock and sincere self-deprecation gives Sentimental Hygiene, his strongest record in years, its drama.

It’s a sign of Zevon’s strength that despite the high-profile presence of R.E.M. Sentimental Hygiene proved that Warren Zevon was still an artist to be reckoned with, and that which didn’t kill him had only made him stronger (and more bitterly funny).


  5 Responses to “What a Cut-up: Warren Zevon’s Sentimental Hygiene

  1. Mr. Moderator

    OK, whatever was going on with the original post has been fixed. NOW you may post your thoughts on this landmark album. Thanks for your patience.

  2. BigSteve

    I discovered last night that I don’t have any Zevon albums anymore, so I couldn’t do any on the spot comparisons. I originally bought Hygiene as a cutout, a year or two after its release. I think I had been put off by The Envoy, but I loved the earlier stuff, especially Excitable Boy.

    The thing I remember, and the tracks posted here remind me, is how SH didn’t sound much different from his previous albums. It just had a batch of good songs. The early albums rocked harder than people who hate L.A. sessions guys want to admit, and R.E.M. really didn’t bring any special alternative energy or whatever to his sound. Zevon was a very strong personality, and I think he had a clear vision of who he was and what he wanted to be, so his records sound like him, not whomever he’s hired.

    The only time I ever saw him play, I went assuming he’d have a band, but it was a solo piano thing. It was not good, and the friend I convinced to come along has still not forgiven me.

  3. Sentimental Hygiene is decent, but does not measure up to his first s/t record. Sure, there’s a lot of humor in SH, but nothing as hilarious as earlier songs like “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me.”

    I think the real difference is his earlier stuff was harder-hitting. There were no details spared concerning his astringent observations about relationships. In contrast, SH sounds like he’s softened up a bit.

  4. Mr. Moderator

    Nice points, BigSteve and Dr. John. The critics who wrote some of the stuff they wrote, especially Robert Christgau, who wrote the lines about the punk rock energy that REM supposedly injected into this album, couldn’t have actually been listening to this album. I’ve never heard The Envoy, either, but it seems it was so bad and so uncharacteristic of all the other albums Zevon has released that critics felt this one was somehow much more energetic than the actual tracks bear out.

  5. Zevon’s shit > Other people’s diamonds

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