I don’t want your pity
or your fifty-dollar words;
I don’t share your need to discuss the absurd
— “Rub Me Raw”
No one could fault Warren Zevon if, in his fierce resolve to record one last album, he sang nothing but overwrought tunes bemoaning the hand of fate. But one year after learning of his inoperable cancer, The Wind arrives to blow away the dog days of summer with life-affirming songs that are more thoughtful than sad, more philosophical than resigned, and more uplifting than one would think possible.
Not surprisingly, Zevon sings the blues with the urgency of a man standing at the gallows but his humor is so intact, and biting as ever, that it’s hard not to celebrate The Wind for what it is: a song autobiography inspiring as much laughter as tears despite an unflinchingly bleak situation. As determined as any of the mercenary outlaws he’s championed, Zevon has bravely crafted a rock ‘n’ roll testament to living — and dying with dignity — with his twelfth studio album (this is the man who called his low-key 2001 comeback Life’ll Kill Ya).
Zevon is joined by longtime collaborator/bassist Jorge Calderón (co-author of past epics “Jungle Work” and “Mr. Bad Example”), who helped write many of the new songs, and the album is buoyed by a revolving door of admirers from rock and country who joined the sessions as much to work with a great musician as to say goodbye. Like the rest of his oeuvre, Zevon balances the rockers with the ballads, but his down and dirty blues — only hinted at when he recorded with the Hindu Love Gods more than a decade ago — have never sounded nastier or more immediate. Listening to “Rub Me Raw”, a gonzo blues propelled by Joe Walsh’s searing “Rocky Mountain Way”-like guitar, is akin to watching a man fight death with so much grim determination that Zevon’s terminal illness seems a bad joke.
Zevon does sound serious on the dark and brooding “Prison Grove”, which initially comes off as a standard chain gang lament, until one pauses to realize it’s being sung by a dying man acutely aware of his situation. Philosophically it recalls his early classic tale of L.A. ennui “Desperados under the Eaves”, where he notes, “Except in dreams / You’re never really free”.
But there is casual beauty here too, most fully realized in his love songs, especially the Spanish ballad “El Amor de mi Vida”, a piano-backed poem to a lost lover who’s found happiness with another. In the album’s most strident rocker, “Disorder in the House”, prominently featuring Bruce Springsteen on guitar and vocals, Zevon seems to intone “ending it in style” (the playing is so raucous it’s hard to tell what is spoken) as the song winds down with screeching, careening electric playing that outdoes the more stately leads Springsteen usually records.
Mercifully Zevon’s macabre punch line comes early on, with his off-the-cuff introduction to “Numb as a Statue”: “Let’s do another bad one, ’cause I like it when the blood drains from Dave’s face”. He refers to another longtime partner, guitarist David Lindley, whose anthemic work highlights the soul-baring song, which has Zevon singing a line like “I’m pale as a ghost” without a trace of irony.
Ry Cooder’s sinuous slide begins the lone cover on the album, a wry take on “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” that encapsulates Zevon’s fascination with Western imagery, his admiration of Dylan, and a highly personal statement in one tender swoop. A backing gospel chorus including Jackson Browne, Billy Bob Thornton, Calderón, and others harmonizes to lift the song skyward, but Zevon can’t help but play the smartass, verily demanding that The Door open up — “for me”.
So The Wind is the most unusual of gifts, in this case a final album from a very twisted songwriter, a collection recorded after receiving the most dreadful news, that his life could be over in a few months. That the three-month sentence turned out to be quite inaccurate enabled this personal bookend to a storied career and allows Zevon to take that ride he’s been singing about for so long with uncommon grace.