* * * 1/2 "SENTIMENTAL HYGIENE." Warren Zevon. Virgin. "Should have quit while I was ahead," sings Warren Zevon on his first record in five years. But "Sentimental Hygiene" shows it's a good thing Zevon didn't cash in his chips in the wake of his "Werewolves of London" fame: After being largely forgotten by fans and the industry, he became the first American signed to Virgin Records' new U.S. label, and he's now returned with what might be his toughest album ever.
Zevon's last album, 1982's "The Envoy," contained some of his hardest and best songs, and "Hygiene" picks up with the assaultive rock 'n' roll of that record. The title track, where Zevon surveys today's ravaged romantic terrain over a huge, "Envoy"-style beat, is typical of an album whose characters' lives are as turbulent and stormy as the music.
"The Heartache," one of the LP's two ballads, is as open, artless and beguiling a song as he's ever written. But for the most part it's rough stuff, one rave-up after another. Guests like Neil Young, Bob Dylan and George Clinton add punch and, in their role as Zevon's backing band, R.E.M. sounds far more forceful and powerful than on its own records.
From its weary factory workers to its forlorn lovers to its creepy look at Africa, the record is wracked with turmoil, much of it couched in the writer's typical sardonic wit (in "Detox Mansion," Zevon sings of a clinic where "I've been rakin' leaves with Liza/Me and Liz clean up the yard").
You can't really take the LP as an account of Zevon's well-publicized battles with alcohol, but it is a hard-edged, strong-willed testament from a man who's fought his share of demons. Tough, hard and unsentimental, "Sentimental Hygiene" is not as well-rounded as some of Zevon's past records--but this is the time for him to be assertive rather than beguiling. So he stares us down and dares us not to welcome him back.