It ain't easy being a classic rocker. No self-respecting artists ever want to admit that they're no longer able to scale their creative peak, no pop stars want to admit to losing touch with the youth of today (they say it's inevitable when you grow teenagers), and no singers want to go gently into the "Goodnight, Irene" circuit.
This, then, would explain the latest releases from David Bowie and U2, and will serve as a reminder of the uniqueness of Neil Young's inscrutable gift. For his part, John Fogerty has had more pieces of the classic rock than anyone this side of Elvis Presley and Paul McCartney. He's 52 years old now, and while Fogerty hasn't exactly been ridden hard and stabled wet — Blue Moon Swamp is only his third album since Creedence Clearwater Revival dissolved, in 1972, and his first since 1986 — his newest outing is still a remarkably vibrant batch of songs.
Fogerty started recording it five years ago, before sending himself off to the woodshed. He spent a year mastering bottleneck guitar, then two more years learning the dobro. He also, for the first time, visited the Mississippi Delta. Remember, the king of swamp rock, the man whose late-'6os hits sparked a tradition that runs from Lynyrd Skynyrd through to Southern Culture on the Skids, is from the Bay Area, not the bayou.
From the sound of Blue Moon Swamp, Fogerty spent his time at the right crossroads. His guitar work is clean and neat, but carefully understated and never intrusive. Indeed, as much emphasis as Fogerty may have put on refining his picking skills, his voice is the star of this 12-song set. He has developed a supple, blue tenor sound and has had the great good sense (he still produces and arranges his albums) to mix that rich acoustic instrument to the fore.
He's also had the good sense to surround himself with other rich voices. The Lonesome River Band, a youngish bluegrass ensemble, accents Fogerty's high lonesomeness on the opening "Southern Streamline" and again on "Rambunctious Boy." The Waters lend their family harmonies to "Blueboy," and gospel greats the Fairfield Four surround "A Hundred and Ten in the Shade" with delicate textures of exquisite beauty.
Indeed, "A Hundred and Ten in the Shade" may be the single best song Fogerty has offered since CCR fell apart. It's a slow, shuffling blues, and Fogerty's vocals have the tense, resigned, keening sadness of vintage Bobbie Gentry (remember "Ode to Billie Joe"?). Almost as striking, though vastly different in tone, is "Joy of My Life," a sober and loving companion to Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight." Middle-aged love songs are generally the province of country music, but Fogerty strikes exactly the right balance between trite and tender.
Those are the high points, and they're plenty high. Fogerty's problem, if you can call it that, is that he writes hit singles...and then a bunch of other songs. That makes for splendid greatest-hits packages and glorious road tapes. But, with the exception of his collection of classic country cuts, 1973's The Blue Ridge Rangers (a kind of joke — he played all the instruments), Fogerty has yet to make an album that holds together.
Blue Moon Swamp comes closer than his last outing, the disappointing Eye of the Zombie. The new songs sound like they belong together, despite a varied cast of supporting players that includes a drummer from the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Chad Smith) and a bassist from Booker T. and the MG's (Duck Dunn). But you're still left with the hits — those amazing moments when everything clicks — and the B sides.
"Hot Rod Heart," for example, is a formulaic boogie. Mind you, it's a good formula and well-executed, but there's nothing special about it. Same story with "Bring It Down to Jelly Roll" and "Walking in a Hurricane"; by the end of Blue Moon Swamp, the spell begins to wear off a bit. Still, it's been one hell of a night and worth the wait.