Eric Clapton has always been a songwriter’s guitarist. Unlike many blues players who only look at a lyric as something that gives them a break between solos, Clapton has always respected the work of such writers as Bob Marley (“I Shot the Sheriff”), John Hiatt (“Riding With the King”), and, of course, his longtime friend J.J. Cale. Because of EC’s affinity for good songs, Cale, as well as some surprising songwriters from a long bygone era, are well-represented on his new album, Clapton.
Clapton starts off nicely with “Travelin’ Alone,” a great obscure blues number with a memorable melody (compared to most blues numbers) by Texas bluesman Melvin “Lil’ Son” Jackson. But the momentum is lost when this song is followed by Hoagy Carmichael’s downtempo “Rocking Chair,” a song about getting older that reminds us that, well, Clapton is indeed getting older. This Carmichael number, as well as Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is The Ocean” and Johnny Mercer’s great classic “Autumn Leaves,” are part of an album that includes a J.J. Cale song about murder (“River Runs Deep”) and numbers by Chicago blues legends (Snooky Pryor’s “Judgement Day” and Little Walter’s “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer,” both with the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Kim Wilson on harp).
So there’s a little bit of everything on this album, which is more problematic than it is nice. Clapton is still no virtuoso singer, and these songs are sequenced in such a way that most of us will end up skipping amongst the three or four tunes that we really enjoy because the styles are so wildly varied. It’s great to see EC recognize some songwriting greats and to acknowledge some quality music. But when he fairly mugs like Satchmo on Tin Pan Alley writer Harry Woods’ “When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful,” with a full contingent of New Orleans players that features Wynton Marsalis and Allen Toussaint, well, enough already Slowhand, please pull out your Strat and do what you do best: play.
In other words, there’s very little memorable guitar on this album, and much of it is courtesy of co-producer Doyle Bramhall II and slide guitarist Derek Trucks. Clapton’s playing is instantly recognizable when he weighs in, but sometimes it doesn’t work, as on “Autumn Leaves,” where his muted tone against the song’s minor chords and syrupy live strings might make a hip listener long for another minor-key song of lost love: Gary Moore’s “Still Got The Blues,” with burning guitar against synth strings that are far more powerful. If you pick up this album hoping for a guitar fest because of its blues titles and the Clapton, Bramhall and Trucks lineup, well, fuhgeddaboudit. But if you want to hear a couple good blues numbers with Clapton singing a few chestnuts from some guys who could have taught masters’ classes in melody and rhyme (and are all long dead), then you might like this one. Clapton is still the man, but this album is much better suited for curling up in front of the fireplace with a nice Chablis than with a bucket of beer.