Lee Hazlewood – singer, songwriter, arranger, producer, wit and curmudgeon – has announced that Cake or Death will be his last-ever release. The septugenarian cowboy, no doubt aware of the public’s perception of him, as well as the inevitable march of time, has therefore pulled out all the stops to make sure he – literally – leaves ‘em happy.
Cake or Death, its title a reference to Eddie Izzard, who Lee is apparently a fan of, calls on favours from, or returns them to, former collaborators and friends Duane Eddy, Richard Bennett, Al Casey and Tommy Parsons. It features Scandinavian jazz singer Ann Kristin Hedmark, German actor/singer Bela B, and the silky and mysterious Lula. Such is the breadth of Hazlewood’s influence that his work has been acknowledged or covered in recent times by such diverse talents as Tindersticks, Pulp, Beck, Calexico, Lambchop and er… Jessica Simpson.
A little of the back story. Lee was a successful songwriter in the late ’50s and ’60s, teaming with the twangy guitar of Duane Eddy and composing pop hits for a variety of short-lived talents in pre-Beatles America. Coming out of a brief, British Invasion-inspired retirement, Lee got together with Nancy Sinatra, turning her faltering singing career around with These Boots are Made for Walkin’, providing her with a clutch of other hits, and duetting on the classic 1968 album, Nancy and Lee.
But for its occasionally light-hearted tone, the record would surely be allowed entry to that serious critics’ pantheon of great ’60s pop albums, alongside Revolver, Forever Changes, Pet Sounds and all. Lee’s 1963 debut solo album, the country pop concept Trouble is a Lonesome Town, sets the tone for the wry, storytelling style that has earned Hazlewood such renown ever since.
It’s no wonder that Cake or Death doesn’t interfere with the myth. Why would you? Lee’s deep Southern growl has taken on a more avuncular tone with the passing years, though. Where he played the older guy on many a Nancy duet, Cake or Death’s goofy opener Nothing places several generations between his sleepytime mumble and Lula’s sugar-sweet Cardigans-style vocal. The frantic bi-lingual The First Song of the Day drives around a fierce scattershot Duane Eddy riff, while Sacrifice adds another yet scarlet woman to the Hazlewood canon.
Not everything works. The waltz that goes by the name of Fred Freud is funny the first time you hear it, but a partial revival of the Nancy duet Some Velvet Morning with infant granddaughter Phaedra, though entirely throwaway, is more endearing. No, really. Here he is, taking stock, considering his own mortality, a kidney short of the full complement after surgery last year… I don’t suppose anyone can begrudge him the occasional indulgence. More surprising and revealing is the inclusion of the low-key Boots (Original Melody), which is a far smokier, altogether moodier rendition of his big chart topper, and not at all the throwaway item you’d be forgiven for imagining it to be.
In all probability, Lee Hazlewood doesn’t much care a spit who buys his album. It’s his final musical statement, and a well-rounded one at that, and deserves its place at the tail end of a career of truly momentous highs, and a fair few stinky lows too. It’s all here.