Warren Zevon is still up to his old tricks. Scan the list of song titles on his new album, Life'll Kill Ya, and you'll find a series of wordy declarations as biting and satirical as anything in his catalog: "I Was in the House When the House Burned Down," "For My Next Trick I'll Need a Volunteer," "My Shit's Fucked Up" -- even if the songs themselves don't quite live up to such Zevon standards as "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me," "Excitable Boy," and "Lawyers, Guns and Money," Life'll Kill Ya is still his most satisfying album in a dozen years.
Charging through a set of songs steeped in cynicism and sprinkled with characteristic irony, Zevon piles on the crunch here, rocking more forcefully and assuredly than he has since 1987's Sentimental Hygiene. He's remained a twisted storyteller, unchanged by the mildly unproductive '90s and aiming for broader targets. Religion, mortality, and a personal inventory are the general topics, but Life'll Kill Ya is really about Zevon's claim for musical independence in the new century. He's clearly moved on from the dominant despondency and resentment that hounded him throughout the past decade (and which resulted in the most dreary albums of his career).
That doesn't mean he's become a softie, though. There's plenty of black humor and jittery scenarios on Life'll Kill Ya to keep Zevon safely situated in an analyst's office for some time to come. There's a mordant tone to even the simplest numbers. (See his take on Steve Winwood's "Back in the High Life Again," which sounds more like eye-rolling patronizing than a beer commercial in Zevon's hands.) When he really checks in -- as on the disparaging title track -- it comes off like middle-aged spewing that's bluntly liberating in its own modest way (and also a little self-serving).
Not content with the challenge of merely making a listenable album, Zevon eventually builds Life'll Kill Ya up to the point where his creeping, '70s-era paranoia becomes a natural and permanent part of his persona. When he rails against the system or appoints himself cultural martyr (as he does on the fine opener "I Was in the House When the House Burned Down"), Zevon sounds as if he's exactly where he wants to be. Even if that place rests on slightly shaky ground. -- Michael Gallucci