When I first read that Rhino was reissuing three Warren Zevon discs – Excitable Boy, Stand in the Fire and The Envoy – the title that most stood out for me was that last. Boy, after all, has long been available as an unvarnished CD; the 1982 Envoy is only just now seeing its first domestic CD release. (While four of the original release's nine tracks found their way to Rhino's two-disc retrospective, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, the other five have been languishing far too long.) I bow to no one in my admiration for Excitable Boy, but it's Envoy to which I feel the strongest emotional connection. Probably sez more than you need to know to learn that I once included "Let Nothing Come Between You" on an early courting mix tape for my wife-to-be.
While one of the standard critical tacks for Envoy, a line initiated by Zevon himself in a Rolling Stone interview, is "Excitable Boy Grows Up," any disc which imagines digging up Elvis Presley's bones so we could hear 'em sing happily can't be accused of too much maturity. One sign of artistic growth, however: the singer/songwriter poesy which marred serious tracks like "Accidentally Like A Martyr" had been abandoned in Envoy for a more refreshingly plain-spoken style ("Never Too Late for Love"). Zevon was still crafting his darkly comic stories (the title track is a witty paean to international diplomacy which treats trench-coated ambassadors like they were superheroes) and celebrations of self-destructive substance-abusin' behavior (in "Ain't That Pretty At All," he dreams of smashing his bod against the walls of the Louvre), but alongside ‘em are more rueful considerations of love and death.
Thus, in "Charlie's Medicine," the singer mourns the death of a dealer – along with the time he blew giving money to said dealer – with equal amounts of quiet fervor. In "Jesus Mentioned," he calmly visualizes the King of Rock 'N' Roll walking on the water with his pills. The Excitable Man can still bellow with the best of 'em (check out those almost David Johansen-esque shouts on "Ain't That Pretty At All"), but his moments of reflection definitely sound earned and not just a songwriter's conceit.
Musically, Envoy contains many of the ace Cali sessioneers who also bolstered his earlier studio discs – guitarist Waddy Wachtel, bassist Leland Skar, drummers like Jeff Porcaro & Russ Kunkel – and if the album doesn't contain the same sense of sonic discovery as Zevon’s later collaboration with REM, Sentimental Hygiene, it doesn't just lay down passively either. There are some truly sparkle-some pop moments on this disc: Lindsey Buckingham's energetically demented background vocals on the couple-on-the-run song, "The Overdraft;" the Brill Building hookery of "Let Nothing Come Between You;" and the whacked-out Hawaiian chorus to the honeymoon cuckold's tale, "The Hula Hula Boys," never fail to make this Zevon lover grin, though more hard-rockin' types are directed to the title track and "Pretty," in particular.
Per the usual rules for reissues, Rhino's Envoy contains four bonus tracks. First three don't particularly add very much (an alternate track of "Let Nothing" contains a few different lyrics that won’t make you forget the original), but the last bonus is a rough gem: the then clean-and-sober Zevon's unpolished take on "Wild Thing." Now that's some excitable stuff…