Warren Zevon's almost-certain final album sums up his eclectic career to fine effect. If that doesn't make it any sort of masterpiece, well, then that's no problem. Masterpieces weren't his thing even in the best of times, and they certainly aren't his stock in trade as he suffers from terminal cancer.
The Wind, in the proud tradition of Zevon's good albums, is a loose amalgamation of brilliant flourishes, funny asides, tender moments and throwaway crap. With the grave as his muse, his new record forces him to go beyond easy in-jokes and wry cleverness. And so The Wind presents him in a best-case scenario.
Though only a handful of songs deal directly with Zevon's failing health, you can't miss the album's urgency. And although no one really needs another sentimental cover of Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," there are great double meanings to enjoy in a song like the ironic would-be party anthem "The Rest of the Night," where the end of the festivities brings only the Grim Reaper. It's been a while since the man's had rockers as convincing as the ones from his '70s peak, but the new disc stomps 'n' rolls quite well, surviving the well-meaning cameos from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, and a few Eagles.
Undoubtedly, this album will be the Zevon indoctrination to folks who read the human-interest pieces in USA Today and People. We as a culture delightedly pick over the musical scraps of the dearly departed -- Tupac, Biggie, Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley, Eva Cassidy. In a sardonic twist he probably wishes he had written himself, Zevon's profile has risen considerably thanks to his doctor's death sentence. Like rubberneckers gawking at a car crash, the morbid will glean The Wind's lyrics for hints of denial, fear, rage and sadness, and they won't be disappointed.
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No one should get too weepy over The Wind. Cancer may have sharpened Zevon's songwriting, but it doesn't automatically make him a hero. His smart arrangements and short-story narratives forever risked sliding into generic ramblings if he wasn't careful, and it happens here at times as well. Zevon, however, is a talent whose warts were deeply embedded into his distinctive point of view and intelligence. Saps who try to insist that The Wind resolves that conflict are fooling themselves.