Death’s love letter

Warren Zevon has always had a thing about death. But lately, death has taken quite a shine to him, too.

Zevon, who singularly defines the dark underbelly of classic Southern California rock (Jackson Browne, The Eagles), has mesothelioma. He’s dying.

And if my casting of his impending demise seems needlessly callous, then you’re probably not a die-hard Zevon-head. But if you are:

On Aug. 26, Artemis Records will release Zevon’s 19th (and most likely final) album, The Wind. Mostly recorded following his terminal diagnosis, it balances the broken-kneed romanticism and mordant humor that have defined the bespectacled, classically trained, gun-lovin’ singer/songwriter since his ’60s youth as one-half of folk duo Lyme & Cybelle.

Death blows mightily through The Wind; big-sleep allusions abound. And yet the album is, ultimately, a balls-out celebration, a love letter to life itself.

Even Zevon’s stately version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” hints at rebirth, outrunning the obvious irony of including it on the album.

The song’s heavenly harmonies recall the supple Gentleman Boys backing-vox choir from “Desperados Under the Eaves,” Zevon’s sweeping existential weeper from his essential, eponymous 1976 Elektra debut.

In fact, more than any recent Zevon album, The Wind encapsulates him — from the mock autobiography of “Dirty Life & Times” to the recurrent updating of his “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” mythologizing in cuts like the instant classic “Numb as a Statue,” thick with David Lindley’s barn-burner lap-steel guitar.

“Get here,” Zevon sings, “before I fall asleep.”

Another gem, the electrified dead-man-walking dirge “Prison Grove,” revisits the morbid grandeur of Zevon’s “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” from his sophomore album Excitable Boy (Asylum, 1978).

“When they bend you back to Bible black,” he sings amid a swirl of Ry Cooder slide guitar and Bruce Springsteen-led choral vocals, “then you’ll find your love.”

Guest musicians are a who’s who of long-standing Zevon compatriots and admirers: Browne, Lindley, Springsteen (his Boss guitar hasn’t sounded this reckless in years), Cooder, co-producer Jorge Calderon, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty, Eagles members Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmit, and others.

And the players shook off the potentially somber backdrop of making this record — and had a ball. (Good-time stumbles like Springsteen’s riotous trip-up and ad-lib over a mouthful lyric in “Disorder in the House” are thankfully included.)

Zevon himself hasn’t sounded this loose since his newly sober and furiously live Stand in the Fire (Asylum, 1980). Occasionally, his weakening voice does crack (as on the gorgeous “Please Stay” and “She’s Too Good for Me”), providing added poignancy for the informed.

The album closer, “Keep Me in Your Heart,” is open-heart surgery for fans.

“Shadows are falling and I’m running out of breath,” Zevon begins. “If I leave you, it doesn’t mean I love you any less.”

Stripped of career-defining cynicism, the simple, delicate “Heart” is the L.A. songsmith at his most unguarded and beautiful.

When I was younger, I’d joke about my personal Holy Trinity: Bob Dylan was the father; Bruce Springsteen (or sometimes Tom Petty), the son.

And Warren Zevon, the alcoholic son of a Russian-immigrant gambler? The Holy Drunken Ghost, of course.

And my church remains in session.

So is The Wind a great album? I’m honestly not sure that matters. But yes. It is.

— Frank Rabey

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