In some ways, Clapton provides the successful album that Eric Clapton seems to have been moving towards over the past decade. The album, a far cry from a guitar record, plays as mature and reflective, in the graceful sense of the terms. Clapton is searching through old sounds here, and you’ll catch plenty about his eclecticism in moving in the past, but it’s a coherent sound. At the same time, he’s made an album with a few bad choices, and that occasionally slides from relaxed to groggy.
The disc opens strongly. First we get Melvin Jackson’s “Travelin’ Alone”, with the band driving a politely dirty blues riff into a sticky groove. It’s a modern, radio-worthy take on the blues, and it works well. Clapton follows with the fitting sway of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rocking Chair”. It’s porch music, and the band, including the Derek Trucks on easy slide guitar, nails the relaxed feeling. “River Runs Deep”, a J.J. Cale composition, returns to the groove of studio blues, and “Judgment Day” gets that mid-century walking feel down nicely.
After that point, though, the album starts to come apart a little. It’s been a while since anyone needed to cut a new version of “How Deep Is the Ocean”. The song choice itself is somewhat questionable (certainly not as intriguing as dipping into Snooky Pryor b-sides), but the performance is regrettable, mired in its own weight, and not salvageable on the strength of Clapton’s skilled but still thin voice. “My Very Good Friend the Milkman”, best known as a Fats Waller number follows, with a dated playfulness and a tune that catches, but not necessarily as a good thing. The album became stately with “How Deep”, but it turns grown-up silly, mistaking silliness and bounce for a fun sort of lightheartedness. Appearances by artists like Wynton Marsalis and Allen Toussaint add talent, but perhaps too much weight.
Closing track “Autumn Leaves”, suffers from its own import, subdued and whispered. The expert playing doesn’t take away from its staleness, and it’s an unfortunate way to end an album that’s gone just a little too long, and that was rolling just one track earlier with “Run Back to Your Side”. (Although, admittedly, it’s not so much that the ‘80s rock of this Clapton original stands out as that it used an appropriate tempo, groove, and lyric to end an album so varied in tempo and mood).
Clapton, despite its missteps (including the overbearing Clapton/Sheryl Crow “Diamonds Made from Rain”), contains not only plenty strong moments, but also an appealing general approach. Both Clapton and his band are at ease, and their confidence supports every performance. They don’t always get it right, but they do so often enough. “When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful” – another cut known from Fats Waller – captures the New Orleans bounce that missed on “Milkman”, again using Marsalis and Toussaint, but this time for more fun, as if it’s just a handful of musicians doing their thing, and that thing turning out to be something pretty good.
Tracks like “That’s No Way to Get Along” and “Hard Time Blues” (where Doyle Bramhall II takes the guitar solo as Clapton strums hims mandolin) are successful for similar reasons. The players feel loose even as the band stays tight. The strategy – a group of established, knowledgeable artists taking music from a variety of older sources and covering a range of genres while staying focused – pays off very nicely with engaging sophisticated results when the strategy works. Unfortunately, there are too many misfires here to make Clapton a standout album. You could, however, probably pare the disc down to a 40-minute LP for a memorable listen. It’s a shame someone didn’t think of that earlier.