Eric Burdon doesn't regard himself as much of a firebrand anymore, but don't think he'll hesitate to express a strongly held opinion.
"I don't know if I have the strength to rabble-rouse today, but I'll speak up and get involved," Burdon, 71, tells Rolling Stone with a dry chuckle. "I feel it's up to the individual to do that, and shame on the individual who doesn't do that."
Burdon does plenty of it on 'Til Your River Runs Dry, his first full album of new material since 2006, which follows an EP he recorded last fall with the Greenhornes and Brendan Benson. In a voice that still resonates with earthy power, the ex-Animals and War leader sings about conserving a precious resource on "Water," New Orleans' struggle to recover after Hurricane Katrina on "River Is Rising" and recalls the "radical student" he used to be on "Old Habits Die Hard," a perspective he filters through the modern lens of the Arab Spring protests in the Middle East.
"Who's right and who's wrong on either side doesn't really matter when it comes to writing a song about the deranged, crazy kid on the streets who may not know what he's fighting for, but knows that he can't walk the same street as he did the day before without getting hassled," says Burdon. "I myself have gotten hassled by the authorities over the years, and the memory of that kid I was then is what that song is all about."
'Til Your River Runs Dry is full of memories, both cultural and personal. Burdon mourns rock & roll friends who died in their primes on "27 Forever" and reflects on the way global conflicts shaped his life on songs like "Memorial Day."
"I'm really still a child of the Forties. I still think about it a lot, about the repercussions of armed conflict," he says. "Until 1953 we had rationing. We couldn't buy meat, we couldn't buy pleasurable goods like cigarettes and sweets. I didn't starve – my family were lucky – but I knew what it was like standing in line waiting for foodstuffs."
Recovery from World War II came more slowly in other parts of Europe, and Burdon's travels in the Eastern Bloc in the early Sixties brought back childhood memories of waiting in line for basic goods. It also instilled in him a lifelong interest in how other people live, especially those who live differently than he does.
"When I go to a place, like New Orleans, it's the dark side that I want to know about, because it's the dark side that helped create the light that comes from the city," he says. "Jazz started in whorehouses. I've always been interested, wherever I go, in what the other side is like. First thing I do is get in a cab and say, 'How do I get to the other side of the tracks?'"
Burdon recorded part of 'Til Your River Runs Dry in New Orleans, a city that has always loomed large in his imagination – in part because he never stays long, lest the weather inflame his asthma.
"As a child, I was in New Orleans long before I ever stepped on a plane," he says. "I've always looked on New Orleans as a love affair with a woman who I can't always expect to be there waiting for me. But as soon as I get a chance, I'm in a taxi running across town to hook up with her."
After releasing studio albums at a rather deliberate pace over the past 25 years – 'Til Your River Runs Dry is just his fifth LP since 1988 – Burdon says he's already planning a follow-up. He's also writing a book, in which he wants to focus on the people he's met in a lifetime's worth of travel, including stints living in Germany and Spain, that has at times taken him away from music.
"I have a life beyond performance. I love it, and it probably is the better part of my life, but I do have another life," he says.
All the same, Burdon is happy to have settled back into a creative groove. "I feel great that I've been given a chance in the golden years of my life," he says. "To me, it's the last battle, and I've been given a chance to get stuck in some good armament, some good power, and there's a chance that now I can finish off my working years with my head held high."