Sentimental Hygiene

Way Up on Rehab Mountain: Warren Zevon’s ‘Sentimental Hygiene’ at 35

In 1987, a clean and sober Warren Zevon bounced back from a five-year recording hiatus to make one of the best albums of his career with Sentimental Hygiene.

Sentimental Hygiene
Warren Zevon
Virgin Records
29 August 1987

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “there are no second acts in American lives”. Of course, he died a few years before the birth of Warren Zevon. The singer-songwriter, who racked up a few respectable hit singles and a mountain of critical acclaim in the 1970s and early 1980s, disappeared after his 1982 album The Envoy, only to reappear five years later with Sentimental Hygiene. That album not only signaled his return to the spotlight but ushered in a whole new era that may not have resulted in pop chart success, but plenty of respect among fans and critics.

Zevon enjoyed a somewhat checkered but relatively successful career before dropping out and reappearing. The Chicago-born, Arizona and Los Angeles-raised musician released a flop debut LP, Wanted Dead or Alive, in 1969, before becoming the Everly Brothers’ bandleader, moving to Spain, and living off royalties, thanks to both the Turtles and Linda Ronstadt paying his rent by recording his songs. When Jackson Browne produced Zevon’s 1976 self-titled album, things began looking up, and Zevon’s star was rising. The follow-up album, Excitable Boy, was an even bigger hit, thanks to songs like “Werewolves of London”, “Lawyers, Guns and Money”, and the delightfully gory title track, which helped establish Zevon as a songwriter whose unreliable narrators and tales of the worst traits of humanity put him on par with the likes of Randy Newman.

More studio albums and one intense live album (Stand in the Fire) followed, but Zevon’s dangerous lifestyle, fueled by excessive alcohol and drug consumption, got the better of him. After the commercial disappointment of The Envoy, Zevon was dropped by his label, Asylum Records. After a few years, Zevon got clean and remained that way for 17 years. Being out of circulation for as long as he was, many fans assumed they’d seen the last of him. But in 1987, a deal was signed with Virgin Records, and Zevon went to work on his comeback album – with a little help from R.E.M.

It seems like an unusual pairing, but hiring three-quarters of the Athens, Georgia quartet (drummer Bill Berry, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills) was an inspired decision and one that went a long way in giving Zevon’s new songs plenty of grit and gravitas. At the time, R.E.M. were a highly respected band but hardly the household name they would very soon become. Sentimental Hygiene was recorded and released the same year as Document, the album that would turn R.E.M. into a worldwide phenomenon. Leaving behind – at least for the time being – their jangle-rock, Byrds-inspired trappings, Berry, Buck, and Mills embraced a loose, garage-rock sound and an affinity for blues and punk stylings that made them the perfect foil for Zevon.

It wasn’t all new blood and a total blank slate, though. While the Berry/Buck/Mills triumvirate make up the lion’s share of the instrumentation on Sentimental Hygiene, Zevon peppers the lineup with musicians he’d worked with in the past – David Lindley, Jorge Calderon, Waddy Wachtel, among others – and even finds space for everyone from Brian Setzer to Don Henley to members of Tom Petty‘s Heartbreakers. That’s not even counting the more surprising appearances, which we’ll get to later.

Sentimental Hygiene works not only as a comeback album but also on its own merits without any rehab backstory. While countless comebacks over the years consisted of a young hip producer bringing in outside songwriters and slick studio pros, Zevon worked with co-producers Niko Bolas and Andrew Slater, with all the songs either written or co-written by Zevon. A hitmaking machine wasn’t propping him up – he was simply making a Warren Zevon record. In Zevon’s biography, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon (written by Zevon’s ex-wife Crystal Zevon), Slater explains:

“Through the course of making that record, I tried to cast different people into roles, but it was not the same group of spectacular LA musicians that made the previous records. I wanted to give it some different kinds of sonic contour that weren’t on the other records.”

The excellent news for Zevon fans is that the performances and the songs were superb. Sobriety hadn’t dulled his sharp wit or mainstreamed him into a lifeless pop sheen. The bitterness was still there, kicking off right away. The opening title track is a guitar-heavy, mid-tempo dirge, aided by subtle, era-appropriate synths and some inspired, distorted lead guitar courtesy of Neil Young. Zevon is pleading for unity, even though he realizes it’s a heavy lift: “Everybody’s at war these days,” he sings. “Let’s have a mini-surrender / I need some sentimental hygiene.”

Quickly returning to his roots as both a chronicler of violence and a master storyteller, Zevon offers up “Boom Boom Mancini”, a sharp, menacing ode to the boxer of the same name.  In a refreshingly direct style, Zevon writes eloquently but presents basic facts: “From Youngstown, Ohio,” the song begins, “Ray’ Boom Boom’ Mancini / A lightweight contender / Like father, like son / He fought for the title / With Frias in Vegas / And he put him away / In round number one.” Always a master of contradictions, Zevon counters the bloodshed in so much of his work with a musically upbeat ode to the American working class.

“The Factory” tells the story of an automobile assembly line worker that seems to channel his friend Bruce Springsteen. Giving the recording a tremendous boost is the appearance of Bob Dylan, who plays harmonica in the song. Dylan, a longtime Zevon fan, showed up unannounced at the studio with his teenage son Jakob in tow. It may have been a freak coincidence that Dylan ended up playing on the song but having one of music’s most famous protest singers appear on a track about union workers and disability pensions seems almost too good to be true.

Evening out the heavy guitars and booming rhythm section provided by R.E.M. are the ballads and lighter mid-tempo songs more reminiscent of Zevon’s earlier period. “Reconsider Me” and “The Heartache” are gorgeous, deeply emotional tales of heartbreak (the latter beginning and ending with the couplet “Shadows falling in the noonday sun / Blue feeling to the maximum”), while the more upbeat “Trouble Waiting to Happen” is full of self-deprecation and delivered with a light touch that wouldn’t seem out of place on The Envoy.

But the heavier songs on Sentimental Hygiene – not surprisingly – deliver the most potent sonic punches. “Bad Karma” – featuring Michael Stipe on backing vocals – races along with a catchy, power-pop fervor, while the breakneck rockabilly punk of “Even a Dog Can Shake Hands” skewers the vapidity of Hollywood. The buzzing garage funk of “Detox Mansion” is a sarcastic jab at celebrity rehab centers, which shows that Zevon wasn’t above poking fun at his rise from rock bottom: “Left my home in Music City,” he sings atop a staccato guitar riff, “In the back of a limousine / Now I’m doing my own laundry / And I’m getting those clothes clean.”

It’s tough to talk about Sentimental Hygiene without making a reference to the one song on the album that, for better or worse, sticks out like a sore thumb. The closing, “Leave My Monkey Alone”, is either the most misguided stylistic choice in Zevon’s repertoire or an entirely deliberate lark whereby the Norman Mailer of rock and roll decides to throw together a 1980s dance funk number. The track, about the Mau Mau uprisings in Kenya, is given a contemporary dance treatment thanks to George Clinton’s arrangement and appearances by Flea, Amp Fiddler, and DeWayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight. It’s indeed an odd way to end the album, and reactions among Zevon fans have always been mixed, but haters can take comfort in the fact that it’s the album’s last song and can be easily skipped.

Sentimental Hygiene was released on 29 August 1987 to critical acclaim (and, incidentally, R.E.M.’s Document came out the same week). While Zevon and R.E.M. never recorded together again, a collection of blues and rock covers they cut for fun during the Sentimental Hygiene sessions was released on Zevon’s label in 1990 under the title Hindu Love Gods. This album is easy to find and well worth checking out. Zevon put out many other noteworthy studio albums in the ensuing years (Transverse City, Mr. Bad Example, Mutineer, Life’ll Kill Ya, My Ride’s Here), a terrific live album (Learning to Flinch), and a variety of compilations before receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis in 2002.

Less than two weeks before he died, Zevon released the Grammy-winning The Wind in August 2003. Among that album’s songs is an emotional cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”. As the music is fading out and the chorus repeats over and over, you can hear Zevon singing, “Open up, open up.” He was making albums right up until he died, and even then, he was cracking wise, seemingly unafraid of death. Rarely have comebacks produced such an unbroken run of unforgettable music.