Mutineer (Giant)
Warren Zevon

By Bob Bahr

Mutineer is Warren Zevon left to his own devices; the surly songwriter allegedly procured a budget from his record company and recorded this entire self-produced album in his home studio. The result: an uneven, adventurous record.

Zevon has distinguished himself by writing great melodies and applying wickedly biting lyrics to them. The melodies maybe achingly, beautifully sad or march-like, with the bounce of English pub songs. The lyrics can range from political silliness to lovelorn sentimentality. Occasionally, the two elements combine in spectacular ways, and the world gets marvelous songs such as "The French Inhaler," "Werewolves of London" or "Excitable Boy." On Mutineer, the two never seem to hit at the same time.

"Similar to Rain," for example, features lyrics so banal and a melody so sweet, it could play in a Doris Day movie. Zevon subverts the sugar with contrapuntal keyboards and an edgy guitar texture in the background, and it mostly just sounds like a dud experiment. "Seminole Bingo" continues Zevon's scoundrel chronicles, this one focusing on a junk-bond king squandering his money at a smalltown Florida bingo parlor. The music is squarely in the "Lawyers, Guns and Money"/"Mr. Bad Example" vein; if it weren't so familiar-sounding, "Seminole Bingo" might be more successful. The title track flirts with brilliance, but ends up fading forgettably. Over the course of ten songs, a tiresome pattern emerges in the songwriting: two verses in the beginning and as many as four choruses at the conclusion. Zevon is capable of more than this.

The best cuts on Mutineer may very well be the two songs that Zevon fans heard before on Learning to Flinch, Zevon's live 1993 album. "The Indifference of Heaven" is without a doubt one of Zevon's best songs ever, although its treatment here is no improvement upon the live recording. Artist management executive Peter Asher delivers some pathetic harmony vocals that aptly illustrate the self-indulgent atmosphere.

"Piano Fighter" is expanded but not improved one bit from the live version, with a toy piano sounding out the melody in the first verse, more dynamic range overall, and lots of production bells and whistles. One can imagine Zevon saying, 'Gee, I've always wanted to put this in a song.' And we, the listeners, are Zevon's guinea pigs. Of course, you can break out of the cage by simply pressing the "Stop" button on your CD player.

Although "Poisonous Lookalike,""Monkey Wash Donkey Rinse" and "Rottweiler Blues" might prove to be spark plugs in performances, only "Something Bad Happened to a Clown" immediately emerges as a standout. The lyrics are tragic and funny:

He used to hank his horn and everyone would laugh

He used to honk his horn

She doesn't think he's very funny anymore

Footsteps in the sawdust leading to the edge of town

Something bad happened to a clown.

The music on the cut bounces amusingly from beat to beat, with Zevon warbling like an elderly Broadway star and Beatlesque orchestration dotting the melancholy gag.

It's always good to hear from Zevon, but Mutineer shows that his talent benefits from the guidance of a producer and interplay with musicians like Waddy Wachtel. Of course, Zevon fans will pick this one up regardless of its worth. The general public will miss little by neglecting Mutineer.