John Fogerty has never been the world’s most relaxed human being, but Eye of the Zombie carries his apocalyptic paranoia to unprecedented heights. If the heavy-metal monster on the album cover doesn’t convince you that Fogerty’s bad moon has fully risen, one spin of “Headlines,” the title track or “Violence Is Golden” will do the trick. By the time the LP’s closing cut, “Sail Away,” recommends a spaceship escape as the means of “leavin’ all of this pain behind,” any rational person would have to worry that the fabled swamp rocker just might have water on the brain.
Fogerty’s misanthropic vision of a peril-stricken world was foreshadowed in several songs on Centerfield, his 1985 comeback LP. On the one hand, the exuberance of that album’s title track, the rockabilly affirmation of “Big Train (from Memphis)” and the sexy road fever of “Rock and Roll Girls” announced Fogerty’s joy at being back in action after nearly a decade on the sidelines. But the haunted, claustrophobic quality of “The Old Man down the Road” and “Searchlight” (“What was the demon that made me run/Can I ever hope to understand”) — as well as the obsession with his much-ballyhooed business problems on “Mr. Greed” and “Zanz Kant Danz” — suggested that Fogerty’s withdrawal from the music scene was not benign in either its causes or its effects.
Oddly, Zombie opens with an instrumental, “Goin’ Back Home.” On that track, Fogerty’s forlorn, feedback-laced guitar solo floats over a dreamy, hymn-like synthesizer melody. Then “Eye of the Zombie,” a sort of third-rate “Thriller” (“A beast already dead/Comes to join the dance of the zombie”), instantly shatters the calm. “Headlines,” a refried boogie riff posing as a song, follows, featuring Fogerty shrieking about news reports that “gotta million ways to say/Another crazy day.”
On “Violence Is Golden” and “Soda Pop,” Fogerty tackles worthy subjects badly. “Violence Is Golden” whips up some apt connections between military bluster, macho sexual posturing and profiteering, but its thumping choruses and inane food metaphors (“Pass another plate of shrapnel/Sprinkle it with TNT/Gotta have another grenade salad”) overstate the obvious. “Soda Pop” is such a bitter denunciation of music-biz greed — cruelly misfocused on Fogerty’s fellow pop stars rather than on the corporate structure that exploits their excesses — that it has the inevitable effect of making you wonder if Fogerty is protesting too much. Even if you agree with him, Fogerty makes you feel uncomfortable about being on his side. And for someone who lived quite comfortably for nine years without having to record or tour — essentially without having to work — Fogerty seems to think an awful lot about money. His repeated screeds about greed seem at times to mask an envy of — even an identification with — his villains.
Fogerty’s at his most engaging on “Knockin’ on Your Door,” a gritty jolt of Stax-Volt R&B, and “Change in the Weather,” a chooglin’ swamp rocker, nearly seven minutes long, that fixes the master firmly in his element. On those tunes, Fogerty’s newly assembled rhythm section — bassist Neil Stubenhaus and drummer John Robinson — locks in tight while Fogerty scratches rhythms and sweats out steamy leads. The two songs are all mesmerizing groove and atmosphere — the absence of Fogerty’s fixations is an absolute relief.
No such relief is available on “Sail Away,” which ends the LP. Musically, the song is greatly appealing, with its drifting, understated verses and soulful choruses (the latter are nicely embellished by Bobby King and Willie Green Jr.’s background vocals). The tune is clearly meant to reinstate the spiritual calm of “Goin’ Back Home,” but its message — that extraterrestrial escape on a “silent ship” is the only way to deal with the grim world Fogerty envisions on the rest of the LP — is flatly dispiriting, a cartoon updating of gospel music’s yearning for redemption.
Fogerty’s great gift with Creedence Clearwater Revival — in songs like “Down on the Corner,” “Fortunate Son” or “Who’ll Stop the Rain” — was his ability to dramatize sociopolitical realities in unpretentious, flesh-and-blood terms. Of course, his unfailing instinct for irresistible hooks didn’t hurt either. Now Fogerty’s flesh-and-blood people have become zombies and caricatures, and his hooks don’t cut as cleanly as they used to. While we still have to wonder who’ll stop the rain, it’s evident that, with disheartening albums like Eye of the Zombie, it won’t be Fogerty.