Released: August 1976
Chart Peak: #189
Weeks Charted: 2
Warren Zevon's first Asylum album is a contemporary comedy-western about Los Angeles. In images that are often mordantly funny and detailed right down to specific place names, Zevon compiles a surrealistic vision of Hollywood that is one part Howard Hawks to three parts Nathaniel West. Albums with a Hollywood-western theme aren't new. But all the others have been made by die-hard romantics -- the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell. In refreshing contrast, Zevon works almost exclusively with irony and satire. The appearance of an L.A. singer/songwriter who dares to puncture the seriousness of the romantics but who is also musically sophisticated enough to work in their idiom is long overdue. A competent pianist and guitarist and a fine composer, Zevon's songs run the gamut from acoustic folk to hard rock. His best tunes even manage to use the romantic harmonies of Browne's and the Eagles' ballads to evoke pathos and humor simultaneously.
The album's first song, "Frank and Jesse James," portrays those outlaws as alienated political exiles who fought on the wrong side in the Civil War and were forever "misunderstood." In "Mama Couldn't Be Persuaded," a young man tells the story of his mother, who defied her own good sense, as well asher parents' wishes, to marry a compulsive gambler. Zevon views these reckless characters as ancestral archetypes for the self-destructive, self-deluded fantasists and vagrants who determine the ethos of modern L.A. Appropriately, both songs are quasi-traditional folk ballads, unlike anything else on the album.
Zevon's imitation American is provocative and well made and his contemporary social probes combine Shampoo's knowing hipness with an aesthetic view of the grotesque that's closer to Fellini than Warren Beatty. A rocker called "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," while humorously spoofing suicidal despair, likens sex-for-sport to brutal fights for survival ("She really worked me over good/She was just like Jesse James"). At the end, it introduces sadomasochism in a gleefully casual manner. In contrast, "The French Inhaler" is less ironic. The story of the sexual exploitation of a dumb starlet, the song ends with a jab at Norman Mailer for his literary exploitation of Marilyn Monroe.
"Mohammed's Radio," which sounds a lot like Jackson Browne's "The Late Show," has magnificent lyrics reminiscent of middle-period Dylan. Here, the image of "Mohammed's Radio" is an apt and ultimately mysterious metaphor for spiritual release in a city where "everybody's restless and they've got no place to go."
"Join Me in L.A.," a sleazy rock dirge, and "Desperados under the Eaves," deal ironically with L.A.'s apocalyptic self-image. The music of "Desperados" is so elegantly cinematic that at first it sounds like a totally serious end-of-the-world song. At least, that is, until the second verse when Zevon observes:
Later, when Zevon cuts short the last verse with "I was listening to the air conditioner hum...," a chorus enters imitating air conditioning, a refrain that becomes quite similar to "Michael Row the Boat Ashore." The chorus, arranged by the Beach Boys' Carl Wilson to sound like an elegy for Western civilization emanating from an air conditioner, is the last and grandest surrealistic joke of the album.
The album has some minor problems. Jackson Browne's elaborate, star-studded production is conceptually right for Zevon, but the overall sound has the same somewhat flat, dull finish that is the chief flaw of Browne's own solo albums. More seriously, Zevon is a barely competent singer with an old cowpokey voice, like Browne with laryngitis. Zevon's style, however, is distinct. He delivers his material with just the right amount of yarn spinner's tongue-in-cheek.
Despite its imperfections, Warren Zevon is a very auspicious accomplishment. If it does not have the obvious commercial appeal of an Eagles album, on its own artistic terms it is almost a complete success. Who could have imagined a concept album about Los Angeles that is funny, enlightening, musical, at moments terrifying and above all funny?
- Stephen Holden, Rolling Stone, 7/15/76
Interesting blend of styles includes a little bit of Jackson Browne (who produced the package), a touch of country rock, bits of Southern rock, some Spanish guitar and some pretty ballads. Zevon, a veteran of the record business who has not previously recorded himself, merges styles as well as anyone else and still manages to keep some degree of originality. Songs, dealing from Western topics to love songs, are excellent. LP also benefits from guests like Phil Everly, John David Souther, Browne, Lindsey Buckingham, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt, Carl Wilson, Bobby Keyes and Fritz Richmond. Laid back enough to fit into today's popular format, but singer has a powerful enough voice and the production is good enough to add some guts to the set. Best cuts: "Frank And Jesse James," "Mama Couldn't Be Persuaded," "The French Inhaler," "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead," "Join Me In L.A.," "Desperados Under The Eaves."
- Billboard, 1976.
I am suspicious of singer-songwriters who draw attention to phrases like "hasten down the wind," and I would suggest a moratorium on songs about the James Brothers that don't also rhyme "pollution" and "solution." But I like the way Zevon resists pigeonholes like "country-rock" while avoiding both the banal and the mystagogical, and I like quatrains like "And if California slides into the ocean/Like the mystics and statistics say it will/I predict this motel will be standing/Until I pay my bill." B+
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
A beautiful and ambitious debut, it paints a gloomy and cryptic portrait of Hollywood's casualties through gripping songs like "Carmelita," "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead," and "Mohammed's Radio." * * * *
- John Floyd, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
Warren Zevon is one of the great albums of the '70s, a virtual concept album about a culture, and its individual inhabitants, spinning out of control. Some of the songs were first popularized by Linda Ronstadt ("Hasten Down the Wind," "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" and "Mohammed's Radio"), but Zevon's versions are grittier and more desperate. * * * * *
- Daniel Durchholz, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
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