Samuel Johnson, in one of the most overexposed aphorisms to come out of the 18th century, said there's nothing like the prospect of hanging to concentrate the mind. If that's true, the fates have paid back Warren Zevon's fondness for dark jokes with one of their own: Zevon, who recorded his new CD while living with terminal cancer, is one songwriter whose mind has never needed concentrating. Dagger-sharp and dry as dust, he's turned his eye on characters from junkies to mercenaries, spooks to lovers, with a wit that none of his peers from the '70s singer-songwriter boom have been able to touch. But unlike some of the writers to whom he's been compared—not lyricists most often, but prose stylists like Hunter S. Thompson—Zevon has a dirty little secret: There's a leavening note of compassion to his best work, a beating heart behind the skeletal grin. For every "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," there's a "Hasten Down the Wind."
It's not surprising that this part of Zevon's sensibility is front and center on The Wind (Artemis Records), or that the project carries with it a valedictory air. It's a mantle the record wears gracefully, though, in ways both small (the keening crunch of David Lindley's lap steel guitar, a sound so recognizable to anyone who was there in the '70s that it's sure to induce a small shock of sense memory) and big: The familiar outlaw-on-the-run motif of " Dirty Life & Times" holds an unmistakable sense of the clock running down. Even funny and very Zevonesque tropes like "I'm sprawled across the davenport of despair" are mounted in a setting of creeping decay (" Disorder in the House," with a raging guitar lead by Bruce Springsteen). Other old friends and co-conspirators are in the mix: longtime collaborator Jorge Calderón, plus Ry Cooder, Don Henley, Timothy B. Schmit, Jackson Browne, T-Bone Burnett, Tom Petty, Joe Walsh, Emmylou Harris—a Murderer's Row of singer-songwriter talent. It'd feel like a gimmick if the guest stars weren't so well-used—Cooder's plangent guitar on "Dirty Life & Times," Henley and Schmit's sympathetic vocal backing on "She's Too Good for Me," Walsh reprising the gutbucket pleasures of "Rocky Mountain Way" in "Rub Me Raw."
It's possible to look at the guest cast as an auxiliary, helping an ailing Zevon shoulder the job. But the whole assemblage feels more like a goodbye party, with old friends in from out of town. That note gets struck most forcefully in the goofy frat-house stomp of " The Rest of the Night," with Petty bleating harmony. The song's a throwaway, though, and one of the two tracks on The Wind that feel inessential. The other, oddly enough, is Zevon's down-the-middle cover of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." It's the record's most overt nod to Zevon's illness, but lyrics like "That long black cloud is comin' down/ I feel like I'm knockin' on heaven's door" fall with a clang here. Zevon has always been slipperier than this, more allusive, and Dylan's self-consciously mythic take on impending doom seems downright ham-handed in comparison.
Even Zevon's record label seems to grasp that this is a moment to keep it simple. "July 2003: Warren is still alive," the official bio says, and that's that. He lived to finish the record and to see his grandchildren born. A PR person for Artemis says, "Some days are better than others for him. He's hanging in there. Unfortunately, his prognosis is the same." It doesn't seem likely that Zevon will be appearing in public again. In two ballads co-written with Jorge Calderón, though, he found the voice for a songwriter's farewell. " Keep Me in Your Heart," finished at his home studio in April after he was no longer able to travel, bids a cleareyed goodbye to an old love, and the language couldn't be much homelier: "Sometimes when you're doing simple things around the house/ Maybe you'll think of me and smile/ You know I'm tied to you like the buttons on your blouse/ Keep me in your heart for awhile." It's the modesty of that qualifying "maybe," and the shrugging "for awhile," that make the sentiment hard to shake off. And in the spare, heartbreaking " El Amor de mi Vida," Zevon leaves the listener with an unforgettable image: a man looking out at a world that, somewhere, holds the woman who used to love him: "I look outside, I know you're there/ And you've found a brand new life somewhere/ I only wish it had been us/ But I'm happy for your happiness." It's a lovely sending-off, with forgiveness and an open heart—the way we'd all want to be sent off, to a new lover, a new place, or whatever fresh mysteries lie beyond the life we know.