In recent weeks Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs has found its way onto the car stereo to remind me of what a glittering, if brief, moment that was for Eric Clapton, shrouded under the loose disguise of Derek and the Dominoes, an American band of huge quality in tow and a young man called Duane Allman ready to trade off every lick his senior partner cared to throw at him.
Three decades on, Clapton’s reputation may not be as high — after all, he ran for cover with Allman and co., because he wanted to escape the impossible soubriquet God — but he remains one of the most highly respected players in the business, a guitarist and songwriter whose skills appear unimpaired by all too many years of drink and drug-fuelled desolation.
In fact, since the early Nineties triumph of Unplugged, a perfect showcase for a softer, more mature artist, he seems a stable, more secure figure and several cuts on the new collection Reptile are in step with that mood. Not that the latest album is a relentlessly upbeat affair — the songs, rich in variety, sourced from Clapton’s own pen and a string of established composers, are frequently run through with an air of the nostalgic.
The album’s tone is set by Clapton’s sleeve notes, reflecting on a relationship with his uncle Adrian, a relationship complicated by the fact that Eric grew up believing the elder man to be his brother. Adrian died last year and Reptile, a term of affection in Clapton’s vocabulary, is a tribute to his late, and clearly inspirational, relative.
The title track, a highly engaging instrumental, is a warm, sepia-tinged cameo — bright, breezy, Clapton’s jazzy picking crisp and light, yet touched with more than a grain of memory. “Believe in Life”, a piece for a larger ensemble — Steve Gadd, Joe Sample, Nathan East and others providing an all star combo — is sadder still, layers of minor changes building a web of bitter-sweet angst, yet it is hard to tune out.
Elsewhere, Clapton runs through his blues changes more perfunctorily — the twelve bar stodge of “Got You on My Mind”, the gospel blues of Ray Charles’ “Come Back Baby”, the rolling Southern boogie of J.J. Cale’s “Travelin’ Light”, leavened somewhat by the vocal backing of the Impressions.
But I do prefer it when the guitarist escapes the straitjacket of bluesville. He shapes two pleasing covers of Stevie Wonder’s “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It” and James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonesome Tonight”, breathing fresh life into tired legs, and finds a confident voice of his own on the quirky yet actually quite charming “Find Myself” — a Hoagy Carmichael-like jaunt straight out of Pennies From Heaven.
Ulimately though, it is the heartfelt, autobiographical moments that shine through. “Modern Girl” is a self-written song painted in minor colours, once again, which may be about the dilemmas of contemporary womanhood but seems riddled with the same introspective sentiment that permeates several of the pieces here. The finale, “Son & Sylvia”, a “Cavatina”-esque acoustic reflection, falls into a similar bag, another response to his departed uncle.
The effect could have been mawkish but it’s actually quite moving. Clapton, circumspect as a composer and still highly adept as a musical practitioner, has his own authentic blues to draw on now and, in many ways, they hit a truer note than when he dips into the older, existing catalogue of standards. Reptile may be an uneven collection, but it’s best moments stand close listening.