There are deadlines, and then there are deadlines. Facing the literal kind, Warren Zevon is going down as the first major rock figure to publicly start and complete a project while facing the imminent prospect of capital punishment. Silver linings are hard to come by in this scenario, but it does feel like a blessing that lung cancer failed to knock ”The Wind” out of Zevon’s sails before he could leave us with his most consistently involving CD since his late-’70s/early-’80s ”Asylum” heyday. It’s also, ironically, his first album in a long time — after presciently titled recent efforts like ”Life’ll Kill Ya” and ”My Ride’s Here” — not to traffic in overtly morbid death references. Who knew it’d take terminal illness to make Zevon lay off the gallows humor?
It’s still there, of course, but just as glaring subtext; he’s too smart to be explicit in addressing his predicament (a cover of ”Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” aside). While all these songs have the exit sign in sight, they could describe a particularly bad day for any of us with more open-ended Day-Timers, too. There are moments that free-associate apocalyptic comedy and bluesy desolation so skillfully you’d swear he ripped pages from Dylan’s ”Love and Theft” notebook — as when he moves from the throwaway absurdity of a line like ”Pickle-ickle-ickle” to the sublimely scary admission that ”I’m shattering mass” in ”Rub Me Raw.” But he doesn’t skimp on tenderness. ”She’s Too Good for Me” and ”El Amor de Mi Vida” are moving mea culpas for ex-lovers, and in ”Please Stay” and ”Keep Me in Your Heart,” pleas to the loved ones on hand, Mr. Bad Example deigns to go gentle after all.
If ”The Wind” is unsentimental, it’s also happily unhygienic, sounding as ramshackle and energized as you’d hope a nothing-left-to-lose last blast would. Slide and lap-steel guitars from Ry Cooder and David Lindley set a greasy tone, while Bruce Springsteen contributes a blistering non-bottleneck solo (and unhinged harmony) to the aptly named ”Disorder in the House.” Coproducer Jorge Calderon keeps things medicinally raw, taking care not to overpower — or appear to prop up — a dying man. Some lead vocals are clearly from his last recordable days; Zevon’s voice has always teetered between gruff bluster and sweetness, but to hear his bravado-free reading of ”El Amor” is more heartrending than any of the farewell cliches he has spared us. By the time a shaky Zevon wrapped the album last April, he’d outlived his diagnosis by five months. Thank God his ride’s late.