Warren Zevon – Transverse City

Well, it’s time, perhaps we’re even overdue, for a Warren Zevon writeup. The delay was actually because of a terrible setback, I really wanted to write about the albums in order (even though I skipped the shadow debut Wanted Dead Or Alive and will get to it later), but the used copy of Sentimental Hygeine I bought was too scratched to play past about the 6th track. However, laziness has prevailed, and while I wait to re-order that CD from Amazon (since it’s mysteriously unavailable on Zune), I am going to have to write instead about my favorite of Zevon’s mid-career albums, Transverse City:

As much as I love Warren Zevon with all my heart and soul, I would not have bought this album based on the album art if I didn't know who this man is. Apologies to fans of this album art.

I was 7 years old when this album came out, and though I was well aware of things like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I can’t tell you why musicians in the 80’s seemed to be all about making bleak, futuristic albums based on “cyberpunk” stories and media. Even the final album from Gentle Giant, released in 1980, was tinged with futuristic sounds and concepts. Warren was no exception, but in his usual, unusual way, he was able to make an album that contains not only his trademark ear for melody, but he even managed to sneak in some non-futuristic songs that would become favorites of mine.

Another interesting thing about this album is the sheer amount of star-power that Zevon used to back him up in the most subtle ways. I really don’t think I’ve seen a musician use star guests in such an understated way. I could not tell you where on this album David Gilmour of Pink Floyd plays guitar, or Neil Young, or Jerry Garcia, yet they’re all credited in the album somewhere. I will say that I could tell where Hot Tuna are, just because I know their way of playing so well. Yes, Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen are on this album, and strangely, Casady gets a backup vocal credit, and the man is no vocalist.

Either way, despite all this musical starpower, the album didn’t sell well, and was considered a poor follow-up to Sentimental Hygeine, so he was dropped from his then-label Virgin Records. A shame, but he came back again and released more great albums, so no huge loss here.

So let’s talk about the songs! The album starts off with a synth orchestra joined by a bass and lead guitar as that beat from the 80’s comes in to herald The Future. The song itself is mainly a chant utilizing a lot of desolate, futuristic ideas as if the listener were on a super-fast tour of a futuristic city as Zevon points to the left and right and announces:

Here’s the hum of desperation
Here’s the test tube mating call
Here’s the latest carbon cycle
Here’s the clergy of the mall
Here’s the witness and the victim
Here’s the relatives’ remains
Here’s the well-known double helix
Here’s the poisoned waves of grain
Here’s the song of shear and torsion
(???)
Here’s the bloodbath magazine
Here’s the harvest of contusions
Here’s the narcoleptic dream
Here’s the hum of desperation…

The song ends, like oppressive future songs should, with electric shocks and then the next song.

I really enjoy the combination of the synth orchestra and the trademark Warren Zevon rock sound, and it’s nice to see that it doesn’t change for the “single” of the album, “Run Straight Down”, only the synths then become that kind of fake-string stuff that, again, are very much a relic of the 80’s. This minor-keyed slow song is backed up by a chant that becomes practically inaudible and indecipherable once the song really starts. This song has a really great 80’s-tastic guitar solo as well provided by one of the album’s star guitarists, I’m sure.

“The Long Arm Of The Law”, containing some interplay between piano and synth, is about that most popular of oppressive future themes: the law. It always seems that movies or other media that deal with the distant future either present it being run over by chaos and degradation, or being run over by the Man, who somehow always gains ultimate power and incorporates capital punishment on just about everyone. This song contains some great vocal work from Zevon in between the lines of the oft-repeated chorus.

The only song I’m not as hot on with this album is “Turbulence”, and it’s not that I don’t like the lyrics or anything, who else would write a line like “Turmoil down in Moscow brought this turbulence down on me”? My problem lies in the fact that that line is repeated so often that it becomes tiresome after the song’s 4 minutes. Mind you, if you’re listening to Warren Zevon, you are going to have to prepare for the endless chorus. One interesting thing about this song, however, is that he sings some of it in Russian. Also of note is that this song is not futuristic, as it name-checks a lot of “modern” concerns (for ’89, anyway).

Another synthesizer orchestra introduces the eerie “They Moved The Moon”, one of my favorite songs on the album. The singer talks about waiting on a girl, when “they moved the moon” and “changed the stars around” while the singer “was looking down”. This leads me to think that the singer might have just been waiting so long and staring at the ground while waiting that the moon moved on its own, as well as the earth’s rotation causing the stars to move around, meaning he would have had to wait there a long time. Either way, as creepy as the lyrics and distorted bass and ultra-slow drums and down-trodden melody evoke dark imagery and you might actually believe the more literal interpretation of the lyrics. I like to, anyway.

Thus endeth the album’s first half, and my favorite song on the album opens up the second half, a song called “Splendid Isolation”. The song strays away from the entirety of the album’s theme to extoll the virtues of some much-needed alone-time. Besides the little synth-scale that punctuates the verses, there is very little “future sound” going on here, so it’s kind of a reprieve. In fact, Warren plays harmonica on the track, which is fairly rare at this point in his career (he would enjoy many more harmonica tracks in the actual future though).

The song has a particular line that I’m very fond of:

Michael Jackson in Disneyland
Don’t have to share it with nobody else
Lock the gates, Goofy, take my hand
And lead me through the World of Self

Now there’s an interesting combination of name-drops.

“Networking”, rather ironically, utilizes mainly acoustic instruments, save for some synth-horn blats, to sing a song about the rather young technology that would eventually become the Internet. Of course, using these little references, he constructs a cute little love song that you just can’t help but love:

There’s a long hard road and a full hard drive
And a sector there where I feel alive
Every bit and every byte
Is written down once on the night

Networking, I’m user friendly
Networking, I install with ease
Data processed, truly Basic
I will upload you, you can download me

That’s really not bad for ’89.

Ahhhh, “Gridlock”, the traffic song. This rockin’ number features Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna, I am sure of it. They were making some electric music not too dissimilar to this at this point, so it makes sense that they would join their West Coast compatriot in making this song about being frustrated with an intense amount of traffic. I will say that there are not a lot of clever songs about traffic, but this is one for sure.

We then get a bit of material that, in 20 years, hasn’t aged a day. It’s a song called “Down In The Mall” and it jives really well for the “mall culture” of that late 80’s and all through the 90’s, even unto today. This song features another really ripping series of guitar solos, and I really wish I could put a name to the playing, but oh well.

A lonely horn opens the song “Nobody’s In Love This Year”, which is the broken-hearted love song of the album (as you may know by now, Zevon tried to include at least one on every album). This one has a particular sardonic message, as the song about love gone wrong is treated with a very calculated, economical allegory that contains some bits that just tickle the “clever” areas of my brain:

We keep walking away for no reason at all
For the sake of being free
No one’s invested enough of themselves
To yield to maturity
And the rate of attrition for lovers like us
Is steadily on the rise
Nobody’s in love this year
Nobody wants to try
Nobody’s in love this year
Not even you and I

Beautiful! It may not be the heart-rending love ballad of the century or anything, but I rather enjoy the song, especially for its fake trumpet which reminds me of my favorite video game, Earthbound.

So that is Transverse City, and if you happened to pick up a recently-released Remastered copy of the album, you’ll be treated to an even more acoustic version of “Networking” that is also quite fun.

It’s really unfortunate that this album didn’t do better than it did. As you may know, I consider the 1980’s to be popular music’s Dark Age, where the organic, warm, and meaningful presence of real instruments and real song themes and actual effort was replaced by synthesizers, drum loops, and hideous superficial songs that were either blatantly marketing ploys or so drenched in irony that you could choke on it. Sure, all my favorite artists had their sounds colored by the 80’s (or disappeared at this time, like Johnny Cash), but the truly great thing about artists like Warren Zevon is that the quality of his songwriting transcended a time in history where quality songwriting was considered a thing of the past.

Thankfully, despite the album tanking and Zevon losing his record deal with Virgin Records, he would come back a few years later as a full-fledged folk artist and we will be right there to cover it here at Album Du Jour. Enjoy your splendid isolation!

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4 Responses

  1. I can’t help but wonder, if this album had decent cover art, would it have sold?

  2. There are plenty of albums with much worse covers that sold plenty well, maybe people mistook “Transverse” for “Transvestite” and didn’t want to imagine Warren in a dress?

  3. Oh, lots of bad covers sold well, but this seems to be a bit much, slightly on the headache inducing end of the spectrum. And then he’s staring at you…I think it’s some sort of bizarre hypnosis going on and I’m not sure I like it.

  4. I know! Thing is, he has been staring at you for EVERY album cover thus far (there are only a couple of Warren Zevon albums where it only looks like he’s not staring at you because he’s got sunglasses on), but this particular time is kind of unnerving. Still, don’t let that scare you! This is a great album.

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