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In the face of death, a wit is true to himself

August 17, 2003|Steve Hochman

Warren Zevon

"The Wind" (Artemis)

***

The Grim Reaper's been a steady presence on Zevon's albums, sometimes as a taunted adversary, sometimes a chummy poker buddy -- "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead," "Life'll Kill Ya," "My Ride's Here" (the ride being a hearse) are just three songs among his many cavalier shrugs at mortality over the years.

The tone is only slightly different on "The Wind," as the cancer-stricken musician actually does face death. Aside from a version of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and the supportive presence of a number of famous friends (Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley, Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris), there's not a lot that really marks the finality of this project, at least in the context of his previous work.

That's not a bad thing at all. His sanguine wit is intact, more often than not self-directed ("I'm looking for a woman with low self-esteem, to lay me out and ease my worried mind," he sings on the opening "Dirty Life and Times"). Ditto for his sentimentality, which, though it may have been overlooked by many in the past, is nothing really new. There's perhaps more sense of regret for chances missed (the heartbreaking "El Amor de Mi Vida") and last chances ("Please stay -- two words I never thought I'd ever say" he sings in the tender "Please Stay"). The music, too, maintains Zevon's balance of swagger and brittle yet stoic vulnerability, with David Lindley's stinging lap steel particularly standing out on several songs.

Arguably, the difference now is not so much in the artist but in the listeners' knowing about what's happening. The quaver in his voice on the ballads, the playfulness on rocking "Disorder in the House" (a duet with Springsteen), the rue of "Prison Grove" are all easy to invest with circumstantial meaning.

Even the prayerful closer "Keep Me in Your Heart" once could have been voiced in the character of a desperado ending his days. This time, though, Zevon is the desperado in question, and the plea is nakedly, movingly earnest. Just as George Harrison's posthumous "Brainwashed" last year showed his faith unshaken by facing death, "The Wind" shows Zevon staying true to himself. He can live -- and die -- with how he led his life.

-- Steve Hochman

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