Superstar-studded tribute to Uncut's favourite singer-songwriter, who died last year
So many friends dropped by to help Warren Zevon on The Wind, his 14th and final album, that the monumental swan song served as the best kind of tribute. Zevon, who succumbed to cancer last summer, generally detested the star-studded homage, anyway. He wanted to be a part of his own tribute, and he was.
Nonetheless, the world was not going to let Zevon get away so easily. And, in truth, many who contributed to The Wind, and to Zevon’s sound generally (Waddy Wachtel, David Lindley and Jorge Calderon), are on board, making this collection a fine coda to The Wind proper.
Calderon was the secret hero of that album, selflessly plodding Zevon through the tough patches and heartily celebrating its victories. His crucial presence here not only lends the project authenticity, but his gorgeous, string-tinged arrangement of “Keep Me In Your Heart” (with Jennifer Warnes) brings the sentiments of The Wind full circle.
The most surprising inclusion is comedian Adam Sandler’s rendition of “Werewolves Of London”. Forgoing its bedrock piano for some dance-step guitar, perhaps gleaned from the song’s proto mid-’70s arrangement (T-Bone Burnett’s version on old Dylan/Rolling Thunder Revue bootlegs), Sandler performs a startlingly demented, parody-free vocal.
The big guns are here as well: Springsteen and Dylan, both in live renditions. Springsteen’s “My Ride’s Here”, the title cut from Zevon’s penultimate album, reinvents the song as border ballad, replete with mellifluous accordion. “Mutineer”, meanwhile, stands as Zevon’s most heartfelt soliloquy?an unbearably radiant love song that was so poignant when performed at his last public appearance. Dylan’s take is typically shadowy and luminous, with Larry Campbell’s pedal-steel cradling the melody like a newborn baby.
The Pixies’comeback has yet to lead them to the studio, but their keening “Ain’t That Pretty At All”, which sounds like it’s beamed in from a far-off galaxy, is revelatory. Zevon’s bored, nihilistic lyric is a perfect foil for Frank Black and Kim Deal, who stomp on the melody through zig-zagging walls of guitars and feedback.
There’s no true clunkers here, though the spectre of different artists and/or songs is tantalising to consider. Pete Yorn is admirable on “Splendid Isolation”, but it could’ve been transcendental in the hands of Neil Young. Jackson Browne’s choice, “Poor Poor Pitiful Me”, itself written as a poke at Browne’s sensitive mid-’70s balladry, is ironic but unimaginative. Meanwhile, immortal cuts?from “Desperados Under The Eaves” to the sociopolitically prescient “The Envoy”?are left sadly unvisited.
For the true Zevon believers, two tracks are essential: “The Wind” and “Studebaker”. Presumably Zevon’s last composition, the former arrived too late for inclusion on the album bearing its name. Here it’s cut by actor Billy Bob Thornton, who delivers its lonely passages in a forlorn baritone. Reminiscent of “Prison Grove”, its setting?the Arizona desert?and spooky, ghostly vibe evoke an unsentimental finality.
“Studebaker”, a late-’60s composition, never materialised on a Zevon album; presumably it’ll appear on Rhino’s forthcoming rarities box set. For now, Warren’s son Jordan (with Jakob Dylan) provides this album’s most magnetic moment. With floating keyboards and Lindley’s slide guitar, Jordan perfectly evokes the sound and grandeur of Warren’s early Elektra material (especially “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner”). The lyric (“I’m 35 and I haven’t travelled far/And I spent all my money on this misbegotten car”) is songwriting narrative at its finest, a prime example of Browne’s piquant observation that Zevon could “mythologise and satirise in one stroke”.