THE ALBUM -- Warren Zevon, "Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School" (Asylum 5E-509).; THE SHOW -- At Lisner Auditorium, Monday at 8.
It has become almost as reflexive to think of Warren Zevon as carrying an Uzi semiautomatic in one hand as it is to picture Ted Nugent with an animal carcass slung across his shoulder. On the back cover of his latest album, "Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School," Zevon's trusty gat is thrown down alongside a pair of ballet slippers, spent bullets strewn about the floor. It's only the first indication that something uncharacteristic is happening here.
Zevon has been through a transitional period of late, including a divorse and a drying-out, and these songs supposedly represent a catharsis. What he's actually wound up doing is trading his usual rapid-fire lyrics and straight-to-the-gut subject matter for a skin-deep commitment to change.
"Swear to God I'll Change" is his rocking refrain in the opening title cut, and in the country-smoked "Bed of Coals" he restates his conciliatory intent: "I pray for the power/To turn it around/I'm too old to die young/And too young to die now."
But the album is a study in vacillation, whether by plot ("A Certain Girl," "Jeannie Needs a Shooter") or by premise ("Empty-Handed Heart," "Bill Lee," "Wild Age"). The result of all Zevon's waffling is that in what's billed as his most personal work to date, there's nothing as revealing as "Accidentally Like a Martyr," nor as universal as "Muhammed's Radio."
Instead of the rhythmic surprises or the dissonant tension he has used to maximum effect in the past, Zevon serves up music that sounds familiar, if not downright redundant.
And whenever an artist of Zevon's considerable talents strives for adaptability, however halfheartedly, he sacrifices his eccentricities to conform to the style and substance of others. Thus Zevon's reliance on L.A. sessionmen (complete with Linda Ronstadt backup vocals), and on such musical devices as syndrums, the most overworked piece of equipment since the wah-wah pedal.
The cliches are thematic as well as musical. "Gorilla, You're a Desperado," though humorous and upbeat, is nothing more than a hybrid of James Taylor's original simian libido and Zevon's own "Excitable Boy." And conformity becomes compromise in the hard-driving "Jungle Work," which has done more forcefully by Elvis Costello on "Oliver's Army," more straightforwardly on Negative Trend's "Mercenaries."
Zevon dedicates the album to Ken Miller who writes under the pen name of Ross MacDonald, and gives him the further alias (in Italian) of "the best mechanic." Ironic -- since the album is so mechanical.
The adage has it that confession of our faults is the next thing to innocence. But there's little we can learn from innocence, and though this album is hardly a wasted effort, Zevon is ultimately more enlightening when he is an excitable boy. Perhaps this is not a turning point at all, but merely a brief pirouette on the brink of dull rationality.