At times, it can be hard to understand Eric Clapton’s revered place in rock n’ roll history. For someone whose prowess on the guitar and feel for the blues has been praised as often as every clean cut white boy has changed his socks over the course of two hundred lifetimes, Eric has released quite a few painfully boring or overly slick records. For every 461 Ocean Boulevard or Slowhand, one has had to deal with a Backless, August or Pilgrim. It’s pretty safe to say that, for most of us, acquiring Eric Clapton’s entire discography is not exactly something we aspire to, if we even consider the thought at all.
What would appear to be the saving grace of the man we once called God, then, would be the fact that Clapton never completely lost sight of the music he’s always loved. Those lifeless detours into shameless pop record making never suited him nearly as well as when he was simply getting down and playing the blues, and he’s been doing plenty of that over the past decade, especially on stage (see his B.B. King collaboration, Riding with the King, or any of his recent live performances). So looking at the track list for Clapton certainly gives reason for pause: what the heck is the dude thinking, going all Rod Stewart on us with “Autumn Leaves” and “How Deep Is The Ocean”? And how about that album title? He surely tapped into some powerful imagination with that one.
Well, lo and behold, Clapton is actually a wonderful surprise, and not just because “Autumn Leaves” turns out to be a touching, tastefully rendered take on an old standard that would make Tony Bennett stand up and take notice not just for his voice, but his singing guitar throughout the song’s conclusion. Ditto for “How Deep Is The Ocean.” For someone who has expressed discomfort with being a frontman – and if you’ve seen him perform live, you know he’s not entirely joking around – Clapton sounds remarkably comfortable not just crooning these two timeless pop standards from a bygone era, but also tearing through some New Orleans style Dixieland jazz with Allen Toussaint and Wynton Marlsalis on the Fats Waller tunes “When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful” and “My Very Good Friend The Milkman.” Choosing these songs to record for an album simply titled Clapton might appear foolhardy on the surface, but in practice, it smacks of a casual, offhand genius that only someone with the mastery and experience of a committed, lifelong musician could pull off. And pull it off Eric did.
Furthermore, it’s been ages since Clapton’s blues recordings have carried as much grit and guts as can be found on this album’s “Traveling Alone” and “Rolling and Tumbling.” The latter especially cooks with the same kind of simmering excitement that Clapton injected into J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight” way back in 1970, complete with those stinging guitar solos that we all wish we’d hear more often from the man. As for “Traveling Alone,” it opens the album with gravelly guitar carrying it all the way through, punctuated by some tasteful organ comping and Clapton singing the lyrics of Lil’ Son Jackson with pain and passion. It’s the kind of recording that justifies all of Clapton’s accolades, and it’s one of the most perfect examples of Clapton showing off without showing off.
Of course, as with any Clapton record, it’s not all perfection. EC’s longstanding tradition of covering J.J. Cale is continued here with “River Runs Deep,” and if you thought Clapton could probably play his way through Cale’s catalog in his sleep, this tune just might be his way of proving it – he barely sounds awake throughout this tired and lazy little snoozer. But then, this is really the only weak spot on the entire record. Even the soulful pop tunes “Everything Will Be Alright” and “Diamonds” shimmer with life and love, and also carry small elements of the blues and jazz that mark the rest of the album’s best moments.
At 14 songs, Clapton certainly delivers both quantity and quality, and if anything, it wouldn’t have hurt to have added a few more tunes. Regardless, Clapton finds its namesake aging with good taste and the grace of mastery as he plays the kind of blues that elicits smiles of joy. May that joy keep raining down upon us.
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