John Fogerty's latest re-emergence discontinues a marvelous tradition of obsessiveness and fanaticism. Emotionally insular, adamantine in his beliefs to the point of brittleness, Fogerty has driven himself over the years with a combination of contrariness, resentment, fatalism, and absurdity. He built a legendary career 30 years ago by grafting a received swamp boogie and a black vocal style to his riveting way with a guitar hook and a moral authority equal to any of the artistes of the day. But since then he's been hooked on disappearing, poking his head up every five, eight, 10 years to grant us some warped, uncomfortable music and then, in horror, retreating again. In this giddily sick context, Blue Moon Swamp, from its strained title on down, is a disappointing descent into blandness.
Younger readers will want to know that Fogerty's band back in the '60s was a Bay Area outfit called Creedence Clearwater Revival; the group had a remarkable pop career that over 2 1/2 years put nine singles and five albums in the top 10. Back then, it was almost de rigueur to give lip service to rural purity and backwoods harmony, but no one took it as far as Creedence did. The joke (given the period's gentler authenticity politics) was that Fogerty was a working-class kid from El Cerrito who'd been bashing about the East Bay in rock bands with his brother and some other high school buddies for nearly a decade. Out of place among both the local psychedelics and the soi-disant royalty from the rest of the country and from England, Fogerty was still cool enough to play Woodstock; he wrote the epochal "Who'll Stop the Rain" about the experience. The Creedence franchise could in theory have gone on indefinitely; its appeal had little to do with youth, trends, or the mood of the time. But a bout of democratic flu hit Fogerty in the early '70s; he shared writing and singing credit with his bandmates, with horrifying results, on Mardi Gras. The group broke up soon after.
His solo career has been odd. His first album, done under the name Blue Ridge Rangers, was a slough of rustic tokenism, complete with Jimmy Rodgers-style yodeling. A few years later came John Fogerty, which folded two classic songs -- "Almost Saturday Night" and "Rockin' All Over the World," whose clanging utopianism stands with the best Creedence material -- into a hash of all other manner of rockabilly, country, and gospel-inflected tunes. Then came a Gethsemane of fully a decade. During this time, most of Creedence's earnings were lost in some bad investments Fogerty says were encouraged by Fantasy; Fogerty has never forgiven the company or its owner, Saul Zaentz. His off-kilter, strident Centerfield, released in 1985, contained a stinging attack in a song called "Zanz Kant Danz." (... But he steal your money," the chorus continued.) Zaentz threatened to sue until Fogerty's record company renamed the song "Vanz Kant Danz." An incensed Zaentz sued Fogerty over a different dispute. The now notorious grounds were that Fogerty had plagiarized himself on the song "Old Man Down the Road." (It sounded a lot like the Creedence tune "Run Through the Jungle"; Zaentz, as owner of Fogerty's Creedence recordings, could claim to be the party injured by the plagiarizing.) Fogerty eventually won the case, but frets about it to this day, and until this very year has almost never performed Creedence songs in concert. Centerfield and its follow-up, Eye of the Zombie, are humorless and weird, full of misanthropic bursts and oddly inappropriate conceits. To mention just the most obvious, there's Centerfield's title song: "Put me in, Coach/ I'm ready to play," Fogerty sings. But wait -- wasn't it Fogerty who decided to disappear for ten years?
His new Blue Moon Swamp is a mystery; the first bars are a wan reference to "Bad Moon Rising," but otherwise it seems unmoored from his past. Like Eye of the Zombie, the record uses a backup band, and thus lacks the enticing insularity beloved by those of us who chart rock-star pathology. Not even the news that Fogerty went through 25 drummers, or spent as long as 18 months on one track, can make these tepid songs come alive. "One Hundred and Ten in the Shade" is one of those slow blues burns that are supposed to just slay us with soul. I'm still standing. The pallid funker "Rattlesnake Highway" sounds like one of those bad Eagles songs off of The Long Run. Fogerty's not an automaton: Here, on "Bring It Down to Jelly Roll," once you get past the cheesy drawl in his voice and the cliched story about a groovin' little backwoods spot, you can jump to the beat. But it's a rarity. Elsewhere, his energy seems forced, his moves the product of good-timey shtick. On songs like "Rambunctious Boy," he does that thing a lot of calcifying rockers do: adding a few weird melodic turns at the end of a line to force-feed the song with novelty. It doesn't work here, either.
In the past, Fogerty's idiosyncrasies were forgivable because of a simple gift: There is, in his most powerful songs, a musical purity that matches the moral purity he radiated. The best Creedence tunes, grounded in the commercial demands of the day, are aflame with hooks, riffs, and rhythms. (Critics from the time tell us Creedence was a dance band.) Fogerty had a way with a guitar line that impresses even today. At the end of "Who'll Stop the Rain" come three simple guitar notes that cleanly anchor the song's fatalism. "Fortunate Son" 's articulate, powerful hook manages to encapsulate the teeming class resentment. And even in solo songs like "Almost Saturday Night" the clanging riffs denote an openness made all the more heroic by the insularity and regression that was afflicting him.
On Blue Moon Swamp, there's a different sort of insularity at work. Here, in what may be his first unabashed love song, "Joy of My Life," he gets really creepy. It made me think how much I liked "Wrote a Song for Everyone," arguably Fogerty's most accomplished Creedence track; in it, he addresses forthrightly his inability to write love songs. Fogerty used to be capable of a pure laconic poetry that reminds one of Chuck Berry's. In "Wrote a Song for Everyone" Fogerty uses the reflexive -- "Got myself arrested/ Wound me up in jail" -- to strikingly call attention to the character's self-absorption. The chorus is merely the punch line: "Wrote a song for everyone/ But I couldn't even talk to you." "Joy of My Life," by contrast, is heavy-handed, almost repellent in its treacle. Years ago, Fogerty's rigid worldview wouldn't let him mouth banalities like "Long as I have you/ I'll treasure each and every day." Now we're supposed to think he's matured or something.
The most notable thing about Blue Moon Swamp is how unnotable it is. John Fogerty's not upset about anything anymore. He doesn't have anything to prove. He's in love. He sure still does like that old-time music. He may even be happy. Now, I don't hold that you have to be unhappy to make good art, but in Fogerty's case, happiness seems to have sapped his concentration. Here's a typical couplet from Blue Moon Swamp: "Want a girl to take me by the hand/ Follow me right down the line." Two cliches in as many lines, and an internal contradiction as well: Does he want her to lead him or vice versa? Fogerty seems not to care; why should we?