Lee Hazlewood isn’t dead yet — at least, not as of this writing — but the singer/songwriter/raconteur, struggling with advanced renal cancer, is unlikely to see out the year. Cake Or Death, certain to be his last living release, is rangy and bizarre, fitfully entertaining, and depressing on its face.
Its nearest possible analog is Warren Zevon’s The Wind, another offering recorded when its singer was facing death. But while The Wind felt cohesive, like a final statement of purpose, Cake Or Death feels like a last-chance bid for the cultural recognition Hazlewood, who has languished in obscurity between occasional hipster revivals, has long deserved. Hazlewood, 77, is a musical adventurer who left his fingerprints on both 1950s guitar rock (he and Duane Eddy were early compatriots) to ’60s novelty pop (he was the auteur behind Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’”).
Hazlewood has packed Cake Or Death with just about everything he’s got left. It features an endearingly screwball collection of guest stars, stylistic detours and free-form weirdness. There’s a murky “Boots (Original Melody)” offering elements of jazz and twang-rock, with Eddy on guitar; a cover of “Some Velvet Morning”, the iconic Sinatra duet sung here by his granddaughter, 8-year-old Phaedra; a spaghetti blues anti-Iraq war track, “Baghdad Knights”; and the florid final song, “T.O.M. (The Old Man)”, sung-spoken in Hazlewood’s shopworn baritone. Like everything else here, it’s engaging and idiosyncratic (“Have you seen the old man?/He’s ready to go”), and exactly as bizarre as it sounds.