Rock Album Review: The Zombies’ “Different Game” — Still Impressive After All These Years

By Matt Hanson

Maybe The Zombies are not quite as elaborately visionary as they used to be, but after all this time that is no great sin. And Colin Blunstone and Ron Argent’s breathy but soulful voices have held up magnificently.

I would have been happy had they just breezed through their hits at a recent show, but to the delight of me and my fellow concertgoers, The Zombies played their asses off. It was one of those nights when the band magically conducts the crowd’s energy, like strumming an invisible chord linking one and all. I love live music, but for some reason I’ve talked myself out of seeing plenty of great concerts over the years. I’ll always regret missing out on hearing them revisit their mighty magnum opus Odessey and Oracle. I did manage to catch their co-lead singer Colin Blunstone play a nifty solo show at City Winery a few years ago.

Still, I longed for the full effect of the band. Happily, after all these years, I finally got it. The feisty, immortal early singles “Tell Her No” and “She’s Not There” exuded a fierce, almost punk rock energy and worked well as rollicking closers, with “The Way I Feel Inside” serving as a poignantly vulnerable a cappella encore. We all walked out of the House of Blues shaking our heads in wonder and nodding at each other over what we’d just experienced.

The Zombies have recently released Different Game, a new record of originals. Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent’s breathy but soulful voices have held up magnificently after all these years, which is impressive given that they’ve been at it since the early ’60s. Not necessarily a debauched crew à la their pop contemporaries, The Zombies chose to cultivate a sort of ethereal, elegant ambiance that was uniquely their own. Lush harmonies, sometimes ornate instrumentation, and evocative lyrics — I still suspect that “Beechwood Park” is about courting a ghost — give their music an ancient quality, like finding a collection of folk songs hearkening from a lost Albion of fairies and enchanted woods.

Several decades later, Different Game’s cover art depicts a very English streak of self-deprecation. The band, who were at long last inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, watches helplessly as someone tows their van away in the middle of a barren field. Maybe they’re not quite as elaborately visionary as they used to be, but after all this time that is no great sin. They had deep roots in classic R & B, as their silky cover of Smokey Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” demonstrated well when stretched out in concert. Different Game certainly has its share of blues-based moments, as in “Got to Move On” and “Dropped Reeling and Stupid.”

The centerpiece is the rousing new single “Merry Go Round,” which didn’t disappoint when it appeared between the old standards. Driven by a backbeat bolstered by some joyfully pounding piano, the lived-in wisdom of the song’s metaphor holds up, given how it often feels like we’re all doomed to repeat ourselves, spinning as it were in an undulating circle, around an impassively fixed center. Fatalistic, maybe, though the song’s resolutely upbeat mood suggests that perhaps this circularity isn’t so bad after all, if you manage to enjoy the ride.

The title track begins as a slow burn, like an unhurried dance at the prom under a disco ball. The band’s ever-romantic affinity for torch songs is put to good use. When the violins gradually emerge, it’s grand yet mercifully not overdone. The Zombies have always had a highly sophisticated taste in arrangements. Blunstone’s soaring vocals dovetail with Argent’s organ and meld into swooning harmonies. The almost abstract “I Want to Fly” carries on this more baroque vibe. There’s a crisp, cool Modish distance in those sharp early singles that has since given way to something warmer and mellower. The band clearly isn’t afraid to let their big beating hearts take center stage, which is charming given that this is not always a trait associated with their age group.

True, the sentiments of the songs tend to get a little repetitive — “I love you so, and I hope you’ll love me too” tends to be the consistent theme. But as Elvis Costello once cracked, there’s only about five subjects to write songs about anyway, so when Blunstone sings “if you could be my love” he makes you feel it. And that’s the real test, isn’t it?

Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at the Arts Fuse whose work has also appeared in the American Interest, the Baffler, the Guardian, the Millions, the New Yorker, the Smart Set, and elsewhere. A longtime resident of Boston, he now lives in New Orleans

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