CD Review of The Envoy by Warren Zevon

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The Envoy
starstarstarhalf starno star Label: Rhino/WEA
Released: 1982/2007
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By now, most everyone is familiar with the awful irony that Warren Zevon’s mainstream popularity didn’t hit its all-time high until he’d contracted a terminal case of cancer…and, yet, given the man’s dark sense of humor, it’s surprisingly easy to imagine him cocking an eyebrow, glancing over the top of his sunglasses, and asking with bemusement, “So this is what it takes to get The Envoy released on CD, huh?”

But come on, let’s be realistic, shall we? It was only the most diehard Zevon fans who’d been clamoring to get his 1982 album released on a digital format, anyway. Upon its initial release, the album was just successful enough to get him dropped from his deal with Asylum Records, and while it’s not the worst item in his discography – despite its title track, that honor probably goes to 1995’s Mutineer (though your mileage may vary) – it’s very easy to argue that it’s the least of his early works, anyway. Additionally, several of its songs had already been anthologized in one place or another, leading many who’d never actually heardthe album in its entirety to figure that it wasn’t really worth hearing.

Not so, not so.

First and foremost, any album with a title track as darkly infectious as this one can’t be dismissed out of hand. With lines like, “He's got diplomatic immunity / He's got a lethal weapon that nobody sees / Looks like another threat to world peace for The Envoy,” it plays like the theme for a summer blockbuster that doesn’t yet exist. Funnily enough, the opening keyboard riff for “Looking for the Next Best Thing” results in a song which, at least musically, could pass for a sitcom theme. Lyrically, however, it’s a completely different story, providing clarification about Zevon’s mindset about his inability to translate critical plaudits into platinum records.

I worked hard, but not for the money
Did my best to please
I used to think it was funny
‘Til I realized it was all a tease

Beyond these two tracks, the other relatively well known song from The Envoy is “Ain’t That Pretty at All,” a raging rocker which sums up Zevon’s self-destructive tendencies with the lines, “I’m gonna hurl myself against the wall / ‘Cause I’d rather feel bad than not feel anything at all.”

Looking deeper into the disc, we find “The Overdraft,” which is a real piano-pounder, followed by “The Hula Hula Boys,” a tale of lost Hawaiian love that, were there any justice in the world, would be a staple of every karaoke machine in Honolulu. (Seriously, it’s the perfect soundtrack for drunkenly crying into your piña colada.) “Jesus Mentioned” is an acoustic rumination on the death of Elvis Presley that comes and goes without leaving much in its wake, while “Charlie’s Medicine” is a bleak rocker inspired by the untimely death of one of Zevon’s former drug dealers. We also get the catchy (if occasionally insipid) “Let Nothing Come Between You” and the closing piano ballad, “Never Too Late for Love,” which would have you believe that we’re hearing a kinder, gentler Warren Zevon if you didn’t know any better. The Rhino reissue also tacks on five bonus tracks. While the only thing sweet about Zevon’s cover of “Wild Thing” is that it’s mercifully short, there are a couple of interesting discoveries, including the instrumental outtake “Word of Mouth” and a bouncy throwaway entitled “The Risk.”

It’s true, The Envoy isn’t filled to the brim with Zevon’s best material, but, as noted, there are still plenty of reasons to recommend it. Of course, the recommendation might not be as enthusiastic as for the other Zevon albums being reissued by Rhino at the moment – Stand in the Fire (which, like The Envoy, is receiving its first-ever CD release) and Excitable Boy – but the hoary old “even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good” cliché is most definitely apropos when speaking of the work of Warren Zevon.

~Will Harris