Sunday, September 11, 2011

Top 50 Albums, #44 - "Life'll Kill Ya," Warren Zevon

In 1995, Warren Zevon released “Mutineer.” It was a project that was almost entirely self-produced, with Zevon playing nearly every instrument on every song. It turned out to be his lowest-selling album, and even though it included three great songs (the title track; “Seminole Bingo,” written with Carl Hiaasen; and “The Indifference of Heaven”), it felt like something close to the end, if not the end itself, for one of the great, quirky artists of our time.

Five years passed before the release of a new album. And to be perfectly honest, the last thing I expected was that it would turn out to be Zevon’s best album; in fact, it was not until a read a short blurb in Greil Marcus’ monthly Salon column that I even bought it. Marcus wrote, “The old rounder borrows his old melodies, his old ideas and kicks over his own rocking chair,” and that was good enough for me.

“Life’ll Kill Ya” was the beginning of what is now referred to as Zevon’s second comeback, which sadly turned out to be short-lived with his death from mesothelioma in September 2003. From the very first cut, “I Was In The House When The House Burned Down,” the album crackles with a sharpness, a wit, and a vibrancy that hadn’t been heard for a long time. Zevon sounded like he was ready to take on the world, and more youthful than at any time since 1978’s “Excitable Boy.”

“I saw the bride in her wedding gown”

Consistency had always been Zevon’s hobgoblin; even his best albums had been marred by one or two tunes that were ultimately forgettable. That’s not the case with “Life’ll Kill Ya,” and it’s the consistent strength of the album that puts it on this list over some albums that are probably more celebrated (and certainly sold better). It’s difficult to put the difference into words, but I’d go back to a word that I used earlier – “sharpness.” It can be found in the vocals, in the lyrics, and in the spare instrumentation. Whether taking on the demise of Elvis (“Porcelain Monkey”), his own condition (“My Shit’s Fucked Up”), or even covering a Top 40 hit (“Back in the High Life Again”), Zevon sounds larger than life, and ready to take on the world.

“The shit that used to work? It don’t work now”

And for a little while, he did – the albums that followed “Life’ll Kill Ya,” “My Ride’s Here” and “The Wind,” were almost uniformly strong. But neither was quite as good as this one.

Life’ll Kill Ya, Warren Zevon (2000)

Produced by Paul Q. Kolderlie and Sean Slade

I Was In The House When The House Burned Down/Life’ll Kill Ya/Porcelain Monkey/For My Next Trick I’ll Need A Volunteer/I’ll Slow You Down/Hostage-O/Dirty Little Religion/Back in the High Life Again/My Shit’s Fucked Up/Fistful of Rain/Ourselves to Know/Don’t Let Us Get Sick

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