Linda Ronstadt's "Mad Love" and Warren Zevon's "Bad Luck Steak in Dancing School" are being hailed in some quarters as the important new records of the season. Since, in this country, the only universally accepted yardstick for significance is sales, new offerings by artists with the track records of Ronstadt and Zevon become the subject of much attention. That this type of scrutiny places undue pressure on them is a pitty because, taken on their own terms, both Ronstadt and Zevon are gifted performers. It is only when measured against their own success that they fall short.
While "Mad Love" has already yielded one hit single -- "How Do I Make You" and "Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School" contains several cuts as catchy as the '78 hit "Werewolves of London," both Ronstadt and Zevon have their sights set on targets other than the single charts. Both attempt to unveil more of themselves, but in doing so they reveal themselves to be less consequential talents than their hype or their sales figures would lead us to believe.
The punk movement may have been a commercial failure, but it is certainly having its posthumous impact. The lavish layers of sweet sound that Peter Asher has surrounded Linda Ronstadt with on her previous five albums (all million sellers) might be expected to be the last bastion against the punk onslaught, yet "Mad Love" has calculatedly adopted the rough edges and back-to-basics philosophy of the new wave. That an artist like Ronstadt has forsaken her time-honored formula in favor of a new sound is courageous but, intimately, wrong-headed. Linda Ronstadt trying to accomodate new-wave sensibilities is like Bob Hope trying to tell Richard Pryor's jokes.
More within her emotional and intellectual grasp are three songs by Mark Goldenberg, a member of an L.A. punk band called The Cretones. His "Cost of Love" and "Mad Love" rock spiritedly, but Ronstadt forces her delivery somewhat. Never a convincing screamer, she ends up sounding like a suburban princess gone slumming.
Asher and Ronstadt are clever at converting old hits into new ones, and "Mad Love" has two candidates, although both pall in comparison to the originals. Even tripletracked Ronstadt can't summon the rousing energy of the Hollies' "I Can't Let Go" and she fails to muster the pathetic self-pity that Little Anthony brought to "Hurt So Bad." On Neil Young's "Look Out For My Love," she returns briefly to her fortes: fleshing out, dressing up and sugar-coating. Even if she doesn't lay it on as thick as she has in the past, she is obviously more comfortable in this prettier, florid setting.
Warren Zevon is a literate and forceful artist, but any discussion of his new album must begin by putting the artist in some perspective. He lacks the compositional craftsmanship of a Paul Simon, the lyric sweetness of his pal Jackson Browne, or the intrepid humanity of Neil Young, to name three artists in whose league Zevon has been placed.
That said, "Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School" is the most fully realized of Zevon's three albums, displaying ample measure of his cynical wit, self-effacing candor, and husky vocal authority. Whether you are completely taken with Zevon's quirky chamrs will depend largely on your interest in his discomfiting, sometimes repugnant, subject matter. What this rough-tough cream puff, who once made his living writing ad jingles, might know about Vietnam, mercenaries, werewolves or murder is unclear, but there's little question that he strings these gloomy images together in a startlingly affecting manner.
The title song opens the album with the first of three extraneous classical interludes, giving way to the painful story of a man trying desperately to mend his ways. That Zevon recently hospitalized himself for alcoholism lends a stark autobiographical credence to the song, tempered by the dancing motif.
"Empty Handed Heart," probably written in the aftermath of Zevon's divorce, is the album's most touching entry. He sings the final refrain directly and remorsefully ("If after all is said and done/you only find one special one/Them I've thrown down diamonds in the sand") as a haunting descant (sung by Ronstadt) recalls the high points of his marriage.
Zevon takes great pleasure in reducing country life to its basic ingredients on "Play It All Night Long," causing one to wonder where a story-teller's professional interest in the downtrodden ends and morbid fascination begins. Much more enjoyable is the album's lone cover tune, "A Certain Girl," Ernie K-Doe's follow-up to "Mother-in-Law" in 1961. The New Orleans funk is gone, replaced by a nice call-and-response chorus between Zevon and Jackson Browne and dummer Rick Marotta.
Both Linda Ronstadt and Warren Zevon would appear to be guilty of taking their press clippings too seriously. Ronstadt should go back to making polished pop records in the old wave tradition -- nothing to be ashamed of -- while Zevon would do well to stop pouring every deep-seated anxiety, real or imagined, into each song. L.A. is supposed to be laid back, but neither of these albums is the work of a very relaxed artist.