First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2007, Volume 14, #7
Written by John Metzger
Thu July 19, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
Warren Zevon put everything that he had into the making of his fifth studio effort The Envoy. While his songs consistently had been strong, his sobriety meant that he was able to push his craftsmanship forward in new directions. On his preceding studio endeavor Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, he had begun to pull back the veil in which he had at least partially enshrouded himself. Although there were a few shady characters and exotic locales dotting The Envoyís landscape, there also was little doubt that Zevon knew them intimately. On Charlieís Medicine, he relayed, from the perspective of a junkie, the rather chilling and haunting tale of a dealer who was shot dead by a doctor ó "Charlie didnít feel a thing/Neither of them did," he sang ó while the doomed relationship of The Hula Hula Boys was countered by the nearly romantic optimism that crept through the defiance of Let Nothing Come Between You. Saving his most poignant and personal song for last, Zevon told himself on Never Too Late for Love, "You could try to let the past slip away/Live for today/Donít stop believing in tomorrow." The hymn-like quality of the arrangement that he had employed certainly wasnít an accident, and it had the effect of transforming the piece into a quiet, heartfelt benediction.
In a similar fashion, Zevon was far more invested in the recording process than he had been previously, and The Envoy, which had been in the works for more than a year, boasted a stylistic breadth that was unlike anything he had ever concocted. Although nothing on the set truly mirrored the manic aggression of his concert persona ó which had been documented so potently on Stand in the Fire ó there undeniably was a greater intensity to his delivery, which, at times, paid homage to Lou Reed. Edgy rockers like The Overdraft, Ainít That Pretty at All, and the title track gave him an opportunity to vent and fume as he captured the angst of obsessive (and illegal) love on the run, self-destruction, and the state of global politics, respectively. Elsewhere, the perky pop structure of Looking for the Next Best Thing did little to hide the playful sneer in his voice as he walked a line between chiding those who would settle for less and learning to accept the things that are outside his control. On Jesus Mentioned, he employed a simple voice- and guitar-based framework to outline a remembrance of Elvis that intertwined spirituality and addiction.
Still, for all the changes that he confidently brought to bear on the set, The Envoy never succeeded fully in overcoming the sense that it was a transitional effort, one on which Zevon was discovering who he was by developing a new process for working that didnít rely upon substance abuse for answers. Unfortunately, when the album failed to achieve the same level of commercial success as its predecessors, Asylum terminated his contract, and Zevon fell back into old routines by embarking upon a life-threatening binge of hedonistic inebriation. In spite of a few minor artifacts from the í80s lurking within the dressing to its songs, The Envoy continues to hold up quite well, nearly 25 years after its initial release. Had it reached its intended audience, it likely would have been the start of something better for Zevon, a notion to which several of its bonus tracks ó the personal challenge outlined in The Risk and a deliriously unsettled romp through Chip Taylorís Wild Thing ó seem to allude. Ĺ
The Envoy is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box