It’s safe to say The Wind is the most highly anticipated new album of Warren Zevon’s 37-year career. With the grievous news last summer that Zevon’s days were numbered due to inoperable lung cancer, and subsequent outpouring of love and respect for him by his peers (from Bruce Springsteen, Dwight Yoakam, Jackson Browne and Emmylou Harris to Ry Cooder, David Lindley and Jim Keltner, all of whom play supporting roles here), Zevon’s presumed swan song has been the subject of unprecedented speculation, not a little heartache, and perhaps some concern that too many cooks would spoil the broth. Or worse, that Zevon would not have time to finish the record.
Those worries were unfounded. Zevon has done, if not the impossible, then the unlikely. Under the direst circumstances, he has painted his masterpiece. His high-profile guests play respectful, if pivotal, roles, giving a remarkable set of songs the kind of density and attention to detail they need. Yet the record feels loose, full of camaraderie and little revelations. And a lot of smiles.
The backdrop, of course, is mortality?the artist’s, inevitably, but really everyone’s?but then that’s nothing new; Zevon’s last two records dealt directly, unflinchingly, with such matters. But, in typical Zevonian fashion, the songs here mix unbearable poignancy with crazed humour, the spectre of the gallows with the prospect of an all-night party.
On opener “My Dirty Life And Times”, autobiography begets self-mythology begets, finally, a kind of Zen-like reconciliation?the wild-eyed, vodka-swilling thirtysomething LA-noir songwriter coming face to face with the older, wiser family man of later years. It’s a perfect opener, full of wry wordplay and featuring Yoakam’s hillbilly backing vocals and a bit of The Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower” in its timeworn melody.
As Zevon himself would probably tell you, everything’s a matter of tone, and the man is in perfect form here. Echoing his growling aside of “Draw blood!” on the fade-out of his 1978 hit “Werewolves Of London,” Zevon resurrects that little stylistic bent on several cuts. “Here we go, hit me harder,” he demonically exhorts on “Disorder In The House,” as Springsteen reels out a blistering guitar solo. “Can I get a witness, hey!” he shouts, as “Numb As A Statue” kicks into overdrive. But when it comes time for more heart-rending material, Zevon’s singing becomes sweeter than a hummingbird in spring.
“There’s subtext all over the place,” Ry Cooder says about the recording sessions, and it’s hard to escape, no matter where you are among the disc’s 11 cuts. Even on seemingly mindless party anthem “The Rest Of The Night”, a throwaway line like “We may never get this chance again” leaves its mark. On the hard-scrabble Chicago blues “Rub Me Raw,” feelings are much closer to the surface. Powered by Joe Walsh’s slide guitar, Zevon spits out a venomous catalogue of images that would make Howlin’ Wolf do a double take: “This goat-head gumbo is keeping me alive,” he growls.
Zevon has structured The Wind in such a way that you can take from the songs what you will. On its surface, it sounds like just another collection of smart Zevon rock’n’roll, a nice mix of rabble-rousing rockers and vulnerable ballads. But linger too long on one lyric and you’ll start to tear up. He balances precariously between the personal and the universal throughout, yet this is no stuffy, sentimental goodbye. Laugh-out-loud lines abound, yet the sorrowful undertow is unmistakable. “I’m on the periphery of a lot of despair,” he told The New York Times last autumn, “but at the same time, the songs have never come like this.”
It’s a mark of the strength of Zevon’s writing that a nicely textured cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” strong as it is (“Open up, open up for me,” he pleads as the melody melts into a wall of guitars) fades to the back of the pack. Instead, two of the record’s undeniable highlights are four-to-the-floor rockers. “Disorder In The House” is loose as hell, fuelled by Chuck Berry rhythms and Springsteen’s paint-peeling guitar. It finds Zevon waxing apoplectic (“There’s zombies on the lawn, staggering around,” he intones), cataloguing in typically peculiar fashion the entropic deterioration surrounding him. “Numb As A Statue” is less of a bull in a china shop, but no less affecting. Riding a bouncy, piano-driven melody and a delicious David Lindley signature guitar figure, this song surely captures Zevon’s predicament in the most graceful of terms. It’ll have you singing along?”I’m going to beg, borrow and steal/Some feelings from you/I’m going to beg, borrow and steal/So I can have some feelings too”?before the absurdity of its sentiments sink in.
Zevon gets down to ominous cases with four ballads that subtly infiltrate the album’s second half. Regret, longing, benediction, and, finally, on “Keep Me In Your Heart”, a remarkably lucid vision of the effects of his death on his loved ones, leaven the album with a bittersweet fragility. “Please stay, please stay/Two words I thought I’d never learn to say,” Zevon pleads on the de facto title song. With Emmylou Harris’ floating harmony and perhaps Zevon’s most measured singing ever, this is searing audio-v