Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Envoy

Who else but Warren Zevon could write a song about Philip Habib and make it cool?

Habib was a famous career diplomat, and in the early 80s, he served as Ronald Reagan's personal envoy to the Middle East, where he is credited with helping avert war. With the opening title track off his album The Envoy (1982), Zevon makes international diplomacy and peace negotiations sound as exciting and dangerous as anything in a James Bond movie.

"Nuclear arms in the Middle East.
Israel's attacking the Iraqis.
The Syrians are mad at the Lebanese,
and Baghdad does whatever she please.
Looks like another threat to world peace
for the envoy.

That's the kind of style we could expect from Zevon, the multi-talented singer and musician who always gave off the impression he never took himself too seriously. The Envoy is another fine entry in his body of work, an album that incorporates his blend of rock, pop, humor, and heartbreak.

Zevon's known for his prominent use of piano, and The Envoy has a lot of that, but Zevon also uses a synthesizer throughout the album. On such songs as the title track and "Ain't That Pretty At All," the synth gives the music a bigger sound while maintaining a catchy melody. The former does feel like the title track for an espionage movie while the latter has more of a back-and-forth, sing-songy feel and captures Zevon's defiant spirit and cheeky sense of humor.

"Well, I've seen all there is to see
And I've heard all they have to day.
I've done everything I wanted to.
I've done that too.
And it ain't that pretty at all.
Ain't that pretty at all.
So I'm going to hurl myself against the wall
Cause I'd rather feel bad than not feel anything at all."

Other songs are quieter and softer. "Charlie's Medicine" builds from a little piano melody to a somewhat more aggressive electric guitar riff to create a lament for a dead drug dealer, moving from quiet shock to loud grief. It moves slower, and as with a lot of great Zevon songs, it tells a story.

"Charlie dealt in pharmaceuticals.
Charlie used to sell me pills.
Yesterday his sister called to tell me
He'd been killed.
Some respectable doctor from Beverly Hills
Shot him through the heart
Charlie didn't feel a thing.
Neither of them did.
Poor kid.

"The Hula Hula Boys," which has a recorder solo and a Polynesian island feel, is also about loss. In this case, the song's narrator loses his wife or girlfriend to one of the local Hawaiian boys while on vacation. She went to see the band but came back with "her hair wet and her clothes filled with sand." Adding insult to injury, he sees the bellboys smirk at him because he lost his woman.

Elsewhere, Zevon gets romantic. He includes a couple of love ballads, "Let Nothing Come Between You," and "Never Too Late for Love." Meanwhile, "The Overdraft" is a straightforward rocking tune.

Standout Songs
"The Envoy" - Such a great, cool opener
"Ain't That Pretty at All" - A cathchy humorous number.
"Charlie's Medicine" - Zevon knows how to tug the heartstrings, even for an ostensibly despicable drug dealer

Favorite Moment
During "Ain't That Pretty at All," a crowd of backing singers chant and clap along to the chorus. The song really comes to life there.  

Album Cover
Zevon, in a suit and surrounded by others similarly dressed, gets ready to board the plane. He looks like an envoy about to go off to some far off country on important business.

Track Order
1) The Envoy
2) The Overdraft
3) The Hula Hula Boys
4) Jesus Mentioned
5) Let Nothing Come Between You
6) Ain't That Pretty at All
7) Charlie's Medicine
8) Looking for the Next Best Thing
9) Never Too Late for Love

Personnel
Warren Zevon - Vocals, Guitar, Piano, Synthesizer
Waddy Wachtel - Guitar
David Landau - Guitar
Leland Sklar - Bass
Jeff Porcaro - Drums
And 18 guest singers and musicians, including Don Henley and Graham Nash, on various songs

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