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Review of Sentimental Hygiene
by Steve Roeser
Note for Note, Fall 1987
reprinted with permission of the author
For his first album in five years, the irrepressible Zevon recruited Michael Stipe's bandmates--
Bill Berry, Peter Buck and Mike Mills (a.k.a. R.E.M.)-- to help him flesh out ten excellent new songs, seven of which he wrote on his own.
Zevon's been rather low-profile in the '80s. On the strength of his most (in)famous song-- "Werewolves Of London"-- being included by producer Robbie Robertson on the recent
"Color Of Money" soundtrack LP, a greatest hits album appeared on the marked shortly thereafter, paving the way for an all-new effort on a label new to this artist. Perhaps "Sentimental Hygiene" doesn't quite measure up to his 1978 masterpiece Excitable Boy, but that does not mean Warren Zevon has lost his touch. Maybe he's a bit saner than he was then (and only a slightly crazed individual could have come up with the songs on E.B. and performed them as he did), but no less gifted as a singer/songwriter.
Once again, Zevon's primary theme is the desperate need for love, and the title cut gets right to the point. With Neil Young's electric guitar howling above the mix, Zevon's voice is like a plaintive cry in the urban wilderness. Like Travis Bickle in his own "Taxi Driver" hell, Zevon is portraying a character looking everywhere he turns for that one special thing that will keep him from being driven over the edge-- a real, sincere, understanding connection with another human being.
In softer terms, "Reconsider Me" and "The Heartache" are two sides of the same coin of love. In both songs the singer is alone, but in the first he still has hope that things can be patched up and worked out for the good. IN sthe second, he is resigned to an existence without true love. This is rock music for mature listeners. For, after all, what adult among us has not felt the emotions that these songs describe?
But lest anyone think this album is mired in seriousness, au contraire! The zany side of Zevon is never kept long in check, which is a large part of his charm. "Detox Mansion" is an (of course) totally irreverent commentary on his own chemical dependency rehab, replete with references to his fellow patients (guess who): 'I been rakin' leaves with Liza, me and Liz clean up the yard.' "Bad Karma" features a shimmering sitar and doomsday lyrics, while "Even A Dog Can Shake Hands" humorously depicts Warren's ongoing struggle to elude con artists and rotten business propositions.
"The Factory", featuring a hungry young harmonica player named Bob Dylan blowing a mean piece between verses, is as good a working class hero's story as Bruce Springsteen ever told, and in just over two minutes to boot.
Speaking of Dylan, Warren takes a page from Bob's topical-biography-tune-as-tribute book (a la "Hurricane") with his power-punching "Boom Boom Mancini," which defends Boom Boom and the sport of boxing as staunchly as any champ ever defended his title. As an extra bonus, Warren proves with his jazzy piano outro on this tune that his chops aren't in such bad shape either.
In addition to the above-named talent, the list of supporting players on this record should indicate just how respected Zevon is in the music world-- Waddy Wachtel (who added so much to the rich sound of Excitable Boy), Don Henley, Jennifer Warnes, Mike Campbell, Brian Setzer, David Lindley, etc. Warren Zevon is no lightweight and with Sentimental Hygiene he shows that he's still got the juice to go the distance. If you like your rock 'n roll shot through with passion, intelligence and humor, Warren Zevon is most certainly your man.