Aw-ooo! Though he’s old enough now to qualify for benefits from AARP, Warren Zevon’s rock ‘n’ roll heart continues to pound. Doubts may have crept in, perhaps, after restrained records like 1991’s Mr. Bad Example and 1995’s Mutineer, but on his latest, the low-voiced Californian stacks his songs with driving beats and zooming guitars to create hooks that’ll linger in your ears long after you walk away from the stereo. The result is an eclectic, catchy opus that equals and occasionally surpasses his last really great release, Sentimental Hygiene, which came out all the way back in 1987.
As Zevon explains in the album’s press kit, My Ride’s Here is a meditation on death. The seriousness of the topic, however, doesn’t inhibit the songwriter from loading the tracks with his trademark irony. The opener “Sacrificial Lambs”, for example, looks at the end of mankind as we know it. But bombs won’t bring on the apocalypse, or famine or plague. Instead, it’ll be genetic engineering: “We’ve worked out the kinks / In your DNA / So sayonara, kid / Have a nice day”. “The Hockey Song”, a Dr. Demento-type novelty number, narrows in on the sad story of Buddy, a Canadian farm boy who specializes in hitting players on the ice. He’d rather score goals than hurt people, though, and after “twenty of years of waiting” he gets his chance to put a “biscuit in the basket”. Just as he shoots, unfortunately, another player coldcocks him and Buddy drops dead.
Although Zevon’s voice, guitar, and personality dominate the album’s 10 tracks, some well-known writers collaborated with him on the lyrics, including Carl Hiaasen and Mitch Albom. Hunter S. Thompson also contributes, having helped out on “You’re a Whole Different Person When You’re Scared”, one of the album’s best songs. In it, Zevon sings about a relationship that ends when an expatriate refuses to bring his lover back to the U.S.A. because “You didn’t want her hanging around / In the Kingdom of Fear”. The song is rather mean-spirited and vaguely paranoid, portraying the States as a place where “Dangerous creeps are everywhere”, but Zevon manages to make the lyrics sound deliciously melancholy — and almost hopeful — anyway.
A couple of covers also show up. With his daughter Ariel, for instance, Zevon performs Serge Gainsbourg’s trippy composition “Laissez-moi Tranquille”. Then there’s “I Have to Leave”, which his friend Dan McFarland wrote. On it, he strips the irony from his voice and lets the words fall gently as he tells someone — a girlfriend or a wife — “This time I have to leave / It’s all too clear / It’s plain to see / No use in hanging around / You’ll get by somehow”. This track, incidentally, presents a fairly pure example of Zevon’s penchant for blending contrasting musical styles together. That is, as he and bassist Seth Gomberg and drummer Anton Fig generate a ’60s California pop sound, Katy Salvidge’s pennywhistle materializes, giving the song some of the same richness that used to distinguish the Pogues.
Occasionally, though, Zevon’s playfulness gets the best of him. On “The Hockey Song”, for example, every time ‘guest singer’ David Letterman cries out “Hit someone!” the spell woven by the melody dissipates. Letterman’s voice, by the way, resembles a squeaky car door. And “Basket Case”, a song that pokes fun at mental illness, is too simple and obvious with its humor to get much of a laugh: “She’s manic-depressive and schizoid, too / The friskiest psycho that I ever knew”.
The bulk of the songs on this album, however, deliver more pleasure than pain. In fact, when Zevon drops the wise guy shtick, he often achieves the same enigmatic sweetness that seeped into Leonard Cohen’s music about 20 years ago. Such a sound these days — in this age of Papa Roach and Adema — is not only rare, it’s precious.