When Jordan Zevon found a pile of old tapes in his dad’s San Fernando storage space shortly after Warren succumbed to lung cancer in September 2003, fans licked their chops: Among the reels of unheard archival recordings were demos of Warren’s prominent hits, as well as discarded material that spanned his entire career. The well-selected 16 tracks to emerge on Preludes offer two distinctive rewards: 10 formative demos of material we know and six songs we don’t, the latter consisting largely of ballads die-cast in Warren’s elegant malcontent.
Whereas Zevon’s creative process here sometimes shows itself in a rush—as with the goonish “Werewolves of London” demo, done in a gangling tempo and chock-full of irreverent lyrical nonsense—the more meaningful portrait of his craft emerges through the obvious labor evident in tunes like “Accidentally Like a Martyr” or “Tule’s Blues,” captured on their way to completion. Even so, the most acute rewards come with the half-dozen new songs, whether he’s lamenting a bum car (the abruptly half-finished “Studebaker”) or cursing the heavens (a chugging “Stop Rainin’ Lord”). The best of these find Zevon accompanied only by piano or guitar, and none is more intimate than “Empty Hearted Town,” a song about wearily walking the streets of L.A., wishing for a warmer jacket and “something more to say,” admitting finally that “it’s all I can do to make it through the day.” Intoned with such loneliness, it’s impossible not to believe him, and to hope there’s more archival melancholy to come.