Monday, September 26, 2011

Album Review: Warren Zevon - "Transverse City"

 Warren Zevon
"Transverse City" (1989)

So recently when I reviewed FEAR NO EVIL I offhandedly called “Transverse City” Zevon's worst album. It's a backhanded insult, since all Zevon albums are worthwhile, but this one is generally acknowledged to be among his most ineffective (and it was a big expensive commercial flop which pretty much ended his career as a mainstream pop musician). In the comments, longtime friend of the show Dan Prestwich actually contacted me while on his honeymoon to tell me that, “... for what it's worth, I dig TRANSVERSE CITY and think it's seriously underrated.” Well, if he could take a break to defend the album while traveling the world with his lovely new wife, I figured I could sober up long enough to at least give the thing a chance to defend itself.

After an extended, painful hangover followed by a good, serious listen, I came to the conclusion that I do think Transverse City is underrated, but its still one of my least-favorite Zevon albums. I don't mind the big-studio bloat (the synths do sound a bit dated; still they're not as overbearing as some of his contemporaries) but I think the big production necessitated a little too much studio exactness from Zevon. His songs are so consummately constructed anyway that they tend to sound a little dry when he's so focused on studio-ready professionalism. But that can be ok when he's in a rollicking mood; his personality alone is big enough to propel most middling studio productions into a party, and his brilliant songwriting does the rest. Here, he's unusually dour and staid, which –combined with the overbearing production-- makes the album as a whole feel like a slog.

Worst album? I dunno. It's certainly his most dismal album, though. Zevon has always had a dark side virtually no other American songwriter could even approach, but his signature move has always been to camouflage the macabre and malevolent horror stories in his lyrics in mordant humor and a gleeful sense of wicked fun. "Excitable Boy" --off his record of the same name-- has to be about as disturbing a tale as has ever been told in American pop music, but it's also a wild party of rockabilly horns and sugary background singers. Zevon has frequently worn his heart on his sleeve as well, but when it come to the rough stuff his MO is usually to dress it up so it slips past our defenses a little easier.

Not here. While he stays away from murder and mayhem this time, "Run Straight Down" and "They Moved the Moon" are easily among the bleakest and darkest songs in his whole canon, and they're done without even a hint of gallows humor. "Run Straight Down" is as grim as they come, a ponderous, almost lethargic ode to despair featuring anxiously swirling synths and a David Gilmour guitar solo. "Went walking in the wasted city/ started thinking about entropy" Zevon sings over a maelstrom of keyboards and growling guitars. The song begins with a chanted chemical formula which manages to be utterly menacing and evocative even if you don't understand what it means, and gets creepier and more alien from there. "They Moved The Moon" is even more desolate, a glacial, disorienting haze of abstract paranoia and crushing loneliness (featuring --of all people-- Jerry Garcia on guitar, conjuring a pensive flurry of sharp, angular guitar picking.)

It's not all quite so grim, but the heavy stuff seems to be where Zevon's focus is this time. More fun (and more typically Zevon) fare, like the call-and-response "Long Arm of the Law" and the bouncy Cold-War shaggy dog tale "Turbulence" feel a little under-baked. Zevon has made his name telling intriguing tales with the vaguest suggestion in his minimal (but highly literate) lyrics, but most of the mid-tempo stuff feels slight even for him, coasting on endlessly repeated choruses and big-studio bloat (“Long Arm” could probably stand to lose a whole minute and a half of filler). The only one which really fires on all cylinders is the classic "Splendid Isolation," a erudite and hilarious ode to an agoraphobic misanthrope. Witty rants like "Networking" (co-written by FEAR NO EVIL star Stefan Arngrim as part of his generalized quest to be the pimpest motherfucker ever) "Gridlock" and "Down at the Mall" are pleasant enough but dispensable. "Nobody's in Love This Year" finds Zevon in the lone pocket of heart-on-his-sleeve warmth, but isn't quite a strong enough song to provide the needed balance to the rest of the album's despair and cynicism; instead, it feels like a jarring tonal change which doesn't hit hard enough to get the album moving in a different direction or linger long enough to draw us into its world.

A big part of the problem, of course, is the album's unfortunate 80's studio production. This was Zevon's attempt at a big-budget studio album and its meticulous production is at best ponderous and at worst painfully dated. The more you listen to the album the easier it is to roll with it, but the layers of synths and endless parade of unnecessary guest stars mostly serve to make the songs feel stilted and unwieldy. Occasionally it works out in the song's favor, as with the busy hubbub of overlapping effects on the title track (also co-written by Arngrim) which neatly mirror the song's densely layered description of frenzied modern life; more frequently, though, it just serves to make tracks like "Gridlock" feel turgid and to kill the spontaneity that might make them seem more fun.

It may not help that even though the album is certainly among Zevon's most expensive studio efforts, his backing band (though sturdily professional) feels a little bland. Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward brings little of that band's funkiness to this rhythm work here, instead opting for a more technical drum-machine approach while the appropriately named bassist Bob Glaub globs thick stabs of bass onto his tracks, weighing them down when they ought to be dancing.The reliable Waddy Wachel shows up on only a handful of tracks (alas, mostly the less memorable ones) and while he has the most innate understanding of how to play Zevon's material his usually strident style sounds a bit restrained here, as if he's trying not to show up his colleagues' lack of enthusiasm. The guest stars do fine, but can't do a lot to save tracks which are fundamentally weighed down. It's interesting to hear the likes of David Gilmour and Jerry Garcia try their hand at Zevon songs, but only Neil Young really heightens the material. His belligerently rough guitar lead brings the otherwise unexceptional "Gridlock" briefly to life, and seems to goad Zevon into letting himself loose a little on the vocals as he drops the studio magic and gives in to the sweet embrace of the unhinged yelp.

The album could have used a little more like that. It's probably his darkest album so he rarely sounds like he's having much fun or feeling much spontaneity -- fine for the material, but then the weight of the production also kind of blunts the desolate despair in his vocals. Zevon's voice is such a rich and powerful tool that dressing it up in effects and mammoth production merely encumbers the deft way he can mine a single syllable and caustic phrase for pathos. There's plenty of possible quibbles with the album's production, but the biggest problem is that there just isn't quite enough Warren in there. The clamor of the studio musicians squeezes him out on one side, while he's under asserting himself vocally and lyrically on the other. A bonus track of Zevon performing “Networking” solo --with a simple acoustic guitar and harmonica-- reveal that even a Benmont Tench organ solo can't rival the complex alchemy of pathos and hilarity of the man himself.

But the real issue may be that it's not entirely Zevon's own instinct guiding things. The whole album is his take on the works of cyberpunk author William Gibson, whose grim futurism (while admittedly prescient) doesn't really seem to bring out the best in the interpreting artist. Zevon is caustic, cynical, macabre... but I don't buy that he's as fatalistic as the lyrics here would have you believe. While the gloom is faithful to Gibson's work, I doubt Zevon is quite as horrified by the idea of a world of globally interconnected robot zombies as Gibson is; in fact, I imagine he'd find that pretty cool in a mordantly funny kind of way. Hence, the songs can feel like a respectful interpretation of the sci-fi author's concerns rather than a full-on assault of Zevon's own indelible personality. It's true that the lyrics are neigh-on prophetic (who else was singing about uploading and downloading in 1989? But its so spot-on for today's world that it seems almost laughably obvious). Gibson's work is fascinating and holds up remarkably well, which is undoubtedly what caught Zevon's interest – but despite his obvious respect, Zevon just isn't the artist best suited to approach Gibson's work and it dilutes a lot of the things which make his own work so potent and original.

                                        Soon to be a film by Joseph "TORQUE" Khan. Seriously.

The album's not a wash by any means; actually, its just good enough to frustrate you that it's not better. But despite its flaws, Zevon's dependably brilliant songwriting and eccentricities are fully evident, and the album delivers plenty of pleasure. It's just as well he didn't do any more albums like this, but there's enough of interest here to make anyone with any sense glad he did this one. We're pretty much already living in the dystopian future hinted at by “Transverse City,” but as long as we have Zevon's discography there's always the possibility of a pretty wild post-apocalypse afterparty.

And Stefan Arngrim, if you're listening, keep on rockin.


  1. Haha seriously? Classic Dan. We had wifi for two nights of our trip, and I know as soon as he opened up his phone his browsing history probably looked something like this: Vern, his site, your site, email, CNN to make sure Washington hadn't been annihilated in our absence, Vern again one more time before he signed off...

    Cheers to label #5, by the way!

  2. Check the date, it was totally before the honeymoon.

    More comments forthcoming, I just had to defend my honor first.

  3. Ok, looks like this bitch deleted my post. Let me try again...

    Coincidentally, I'm reading Gibson's NEUROMANCER right now. First thing I've ever read of his before. I always dug the apocalyptic nature of this album, but had no idea it had roots in actual literary sci-fi. Neat.

    Joe, I also have a little gift for you, but it's also sort of an assignment. You don't have to accept the assignment, but I think you'll be amused when you see what it is.

    Shenan also mentioned wanting to go to the bar you work at some time. What nights do you normally work?

  4. A bit late to this ... but that's a classic album, several are darker, and his commercial success was never strong enough to be killed by that set, sadly.
    'He was a Genius.'