Ease on Down the Road (Ho-Hum...)
Excitement, thy name isn’t Clapton, Eric. Yes, we are past the point of expecting E.C. to generate songs that would take us back to the nostalgic ‘60s of Cream or the early ‘70s of his Blind Faith period, or even a few years past that during his earlier solo works. We are quite aware that E.C. is, more often than not, happy to be an M.O.R.‘er who puts out songs that snuggle tighter to the pop format than the rock format. And yet, we wait and we hope, because once in a blue moon, the former guitar God has dropped an uncharacteristic bombshell that makes us pine for the days of yore (From the Cradle). And with that exception, Clapton hasn’t put out an overall good (I’m not even talking great here) album since 1981’s Another Ticket. (Ironically, the smash hit from that release was “I Can’t Stand It”.)
Clapton is a lot like R.E.M. right now. You put either one in a live setting, and no matter how much a song sucks on a CD, it sounds better because all of the layering and sheen and magic tricks that can be pulled off in the studio have no chance of happening live. R.E.M.‘s 2003 hits tour was one of the best of that year, simply because of the energy and lack of overproduced sound in concert. Clapton is the same way. No matter how deep his guitar is buried on a recorded version of a song, it’s at ear-level when he’s performing live. Both of these artists take too much control in the studio and tend to overproduce, giving their songs a sheen that a jackhammer couldn’t break through. And while this may appeal to some of the baby-boomer crowd, the old diehards wish for some more organic sounds. And sadly for Clapton, Back Home falls again into that shiny trap.
Clapton also seems to have reconciled that at least one or two songs on his “pop” albums have to have some of what made him so popular to begin with—his amazing guitar work. When E.C. is in the mood, he can run leads with the best of them, even today. His imagination is limitless, but more often than not, he chooses to rein it in so he can remain appealing to those older fans that are okay with the nostalgia of the Cream days, but are more in tune to the later, safer solo works.
The title Back Home is in reference to Clapton’s happiness that he has a home to return to, where his wife and three young daughters await his presence. Yet with that happiness, he still has time to bitch and moan about having three young kids in the opening track, “So Tired”. Yes, E.C. ultimately says that all this work is okay because of the presence of his kids, but if he was trying to be cute, he failed miserably. What makes the song more maddening is that it actually has a catchy melody line, and all the extra instrumentation doesn’t detract from that fact. So score one for the music, and take away a large one for the lyrics.
Most of the other songs on here are pure Pablum. If they weren’t so damn overproduced to the point of choking off much of the possibility of spontaneity, a few of them might actually be decent (and they’ll probably sound a lot better in a live setting, if that’s the way E.C. chooses to go when he does his next solo tour). Case in point: a decent rendition of friend George Harrison’s “Love Comes to Everyone” would sound so much better with less production. Compared to the rest of the album, “Lost and Found” is the grittiest song here, a blues-based number where Clapton’s playing sounds like it was released from its self-imposed prison. Likewise, the otherwise bland “One Day” jolts with a surprise killer solo in the middle break and again at the end of the song. But alas, on the very next song, “One Track Mind”, it’s back to the same old thing (though guest Robert Randolph’s restrained playing is stellar, as usual).
Two of Clapton’s old tricks are prevalent: the reggae thing, and the long, drawn-out ballad. What E.C. may not realize is that “I Shot the Sheriff” worked because it was so new and unique to him, but both “Say What You Will” and “Revolution” have no bite. A cover of the Spinners’ “Love Don’t Love Nobody” is so drawn out, hate becomes an option. “Run Home to Me” also fits that category. (A general rule is to listen to the first 15 seconds of any E.C. song that clocks in six minutes or longer. If there’s a slow tempo, avoid.)
The final cut, the title song, is the only one Clapton wrote solo (most of the others were with co-producer/keyboardist/programmer Simon Climie). It seemingly comes straight from the gut, with no middleman involved, which makes the song palatable…and believable. There’s no doubt that he is in a new place under new circumstances; good for him. However, he will forever live under the shadow of his earlier days with Cream and Blind Faith, and his formative years as a solo artist. And that shadow loomed larger when he reformed with Cream to play those four nights in London earlier this year.
What the Cream reunion did was conjure up the cynicism of old-time Clapton fans, who said that even under controlled circumstances, he can still kick major butt on guitar, but that he chooses not to do so. Clapton has taken the path of least resistance for the latter portion of his career, and though he revisits his old muse on occasion, he prefers to keep his focus on the here and now. That’s a good thing for those who prefer the current, blander Eric Clapton. But the rest of the Clapton masses have basically written him off. Back Home does nothing overall to change either opinion. Heartfelt? Yes. But who would have ever thought Eric Clapton’s music could become so disposable? Yes, he can still flash brilliant moments (and he does here), but it’s all just a tease. At one time, Eric Clapton was God. Right now, he’s not even George Burns.
// Notes from the Road
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