Some of us are drawn to darker lights. I am one of them. Your teenage dad tore through all of Kurt Vonnegut and Bukowski’s works, was hooked on Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and laughed hysterically through American Psycho. However, It wasn’t until the last decade that I really discovered my mercurial, drunkard, hilarious, arrogant, obnoxious, intelligent musical muse….the humorist, Warren Zevon. My mom had Levon. I have Zevon.
Released in 1976, Zevon created a body of work that is an absolute must own, must hear 40 plus years later. From the sharp first notes of the piano that begin the album to the mirrored somber strings that conclude it, Zevon weaves sardonic, witty tales on top of countless beautiful melodies. Rarely can you find an album that both logophiles and melophiles can agree upon. This is one of my all time favorite albums.
Written as an ode to the lugubrious underbelly of Los Angeles, many of the songs on the album deal with heavy themes such as death, addiction, and violence. For example, the first song “Frank and Jesse James” tells the raucous story of the infamous outlaw brothers and their violent demise, yet Zevon is able to tell this story in such a catchy manner that you almost forget the visceral context. Despite the upbeat melody, the lyrics of “Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded” tell a story of domestic abuse and violence. The narrator describes his father as an abusive alcoholic who beats his mother, and laments his inability to protect her or convince her to leave. Once again, the song’s upbeat melody and catchy chorus serve as a contrast to the darkness of the lyrics, highlighting the contradictions and complexities of the situation. Zevon…the King of Nuance.
One of the standout tracks on the album is “Carmelita.” This haunting, beautiful ballad tells the story of a drug addict and the toll that addiction takes on both the individual and their loved ones. It’s a poignant and powerful song that highlights the struggles of those on the fringes of society. “Johnny Strikes Up the Band” is a scathing critique of war and the military-industrial complex…and yet still a fun party tune you can sing along to. I’m beating a dead horse at this point but “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” has a rollicking, upbeat rhythm that belies its morbid lyrics about death and mortality. Perhaps a little too on the nose for me, personally, but nonetheless “enjoy every sandwich!”
The album ends with one of its slowest and most introspective tracks, “Desperados Under the Eaves.” Zevon further explores the theme of isolation and loneliness, and the feeling of being lost in a big city. He sings about being “down on Skid Row” and “surrounded by strangers I thought were my friends.” But it doesn’t take a big city…we can get so lost within ourselves. Self introspection can be necessary but inward isn’t always the answer, I’ve found. We can become strangers to even ourselves.
As someone who has lived his whole life hiding inner darkness and existential curiosity behind sarcasm and humor, sometimes we get the privilege of finding someone we instantly click with and realize we’re not alone. Zevon’s perspective on life and the human condition is on full display here, and serves as a comfort to anyone interested in exploring the darker side of human nature. Don’t be afraid to laugh along with Warren!
Favorite Tracks: All
Pressing: Asylum Records. 7E-1060. Original US Pressing. 1976