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Eric Clapton - Back Home Print E-mail
Tuesday, 30 August 2005
ImageReprise Records
performance 6.5
sound 6.5
released 2005

So what’s a guitar legend supposed to do with the rest of his career when, just barely out of his teens, “Clapton is God” graffiti starts popping up on the walls and alleys of London?

(Here’s yet another example of how your life is enriched in ways you couldn’t imagine by reading Audio Video Revolution. I’m going to reveal a very well-kept “inside” secret here: that afro EC sprouted just after he formed Cream, and, uh, also around the time he met newly-arrived-in-London Jimi Hendrix? – had nothing to do with copping Jimi’s fashion sense. Eric’s head had actually swelled that much, and rather than a massive mop, he had just a very short covering of frizzy hair on that huge head. It’s true. Examine the photos.)
Was ego responsible for the decline of the former God? Alcohol? Bad women? Good drugs? Bad artistic choices? Arthritis? A voodoo curse? What takes us from mid-twentieth-century blues brilliance to twenty-first-century dreck like this new Back Home album?

I’m exaggerating the point. In fact, Eric Clapton has had a fascinating career
of extreme highs and lows, and arrives in 2005 with not just this embarrassing “journey Back Home” and the successful/disappointing (but wildly received) Cream reunion (please read Stephen K. Peeples’ fascinating, expert review in this section), but with the reputation, with those who really know his work, of still having it – still capable of being Top Gun, King of the Hill – when he chooses. Though Back Home is perhaps most notable for having not a single guitar passage that makes you sit up and take notice, it also has a couple of musically affecting numbers, some of EC’s best soul singing ever and one outstanding song. And God knows, he got through a few d-e-c-a-d-e-s with his popular reputation intact putting out albums that had one outstanding song.

Are you stuck in the past if you expect Clapton to wow you with his axe? I vividly remember the occasion a long, long time ago when a young co-worker and I were discussing music and Eric’s name came up and she said, “Oh, I love him – he’s one of my favorite singers,” and I nearly blew a mouthful of coffee in her face. But she was only reflecting what had gradually become the common perception of him.

It would be different if it had reached a point where he decided he was tired of this guitar guru pressure and, knowing he had already done it all (he had), decided that from now on he was going to be a songwriter and band leader and singer, period. It looked that way for quite a while, as he became the second, or even third, minor guitar player on his albums and even tours. But in the mid-‘90s, he started to release albums that surprised people with the reemergence of the old string-bending, note-cajoling Slowhand, and it seems since then he’s almost alternated albums that disappoint you, then remind you that he can still deliver with the very best of them. So if he still can, and sometimes does, why shouldn’t something as lackluster as Back Home be dumped on?

You may listen and say, why, that’s a pretty good lick there, and that’s a tasty little solo, and what about that? I say: it’s serviceable. So who cares? There’s nothing on this album that 10,000 guitar players couldn’t come up with. That was kind of my complaint with the Cream reunion at Royal Albert Hall which I witnessed on DVD: some of it was quite tasty, but nothing a couple dozen other pro guitarists couldn’t have stepped in and played, and if you were only listening and not looking, you’d never know. I felt that if the reunion didn’t at least replicate the old Cream (hard to imagine improving on it), or give it some slight jazzy shade or … something, reflecting their 37 years of experience since then – why bother? Despite their protests to the contrary, doesn’t that really just make it an exercise in nostalgia? I’m happy for them, for their wonderful experience with their old mates and all, but don’t ask me to listen. Or buy.

Back to Back Home – if Clapton’s playing is only serviceable, and none of the other musicians (and there are some great ones guesting: Steve Winwood, Chris Stainton, Robert Randolph, and Billy Preston throughout) stand out, except in a few places where some are truly nails-on-chalkboard awful, if the songs, with one, maybe one-and-a-half exceptions, range from slightly catchy/almost okay to pretty dreadful, and the same goes for the lyric content – sounds like we need to wait for the next album and hope EC’s pattern continues the old off-and-on.

But instead of just the overall view, let’s go for the rare cut-by-cut examination. This one begs for it. (Actually, if the album could talk, it would beg, No, no, get that magnifying glass out of here, just tap your toes and don’t listen too carefully ….)

“So Tired” – this is way beyond tired, it’s about the worst possible way you can lead off an album. Eric the master musician-songwriter-producer has been artistically mugged and hijacked by Eric the sappy Daddy/family man. If you must include this post-natal grumble and grin, put it at the end, so it doesn’t pollute the rest of your effort and so people can leap for the kill switch when they hear the opening notes. If he had tried to disguise the lyrics, made it seem like it was about being tired of life, but then we figure out it’s about baby blues, that might’ve been fun and acceptable. Instead we get: “The baby’s only feedin’/And one of them is teethin’” … “Now Momma’s getting snappy/And Daddy won’t change no nappy” … “But when it’s time to get my goodnight kiss/My dreams have all come true.” C’mon Eric, you’re 60 and this is not your first kid, or maybe it’s the first one you’ve really been involved with, but spare us the insights that would be clichés on a father half your age. But I must prepare you for the worst: the song finishes out with an uninspired instrumental coda shot through with actual baby cries and whimpers. Thank you for sharing, Mr. And Mrs. Clapton. Was there no one to tell the emperor, before it was too late, that this leadoff song he’s clothed in is a soiled nappy?

“Say What You Will” starts encouragingly with a reggae lope, the back-up
singers are engaging, a few nice little authentic percussive touches, but what could, with a little muscle, have been a good song instead drowns in the sing-songy, vocal, guitar and melody clichés.

“I’m Going Left” – not bad; if you can ignore that godawful vocalized keyboard, the horns are better used, other keyboards get smart, drums drive it well, and Eric shows off a growl that could make me swallow that coffee and accept his singer career. A decent Stevie Wonder cover, but kind of a journeyman arrangement that never fulfills its rhythmic promise. The finish goes on way too long (close to half the song) without showing us anything. Some nice Stax/Motown reflections and such startlingly wrought vocals that this and the next song and maybe a couple others should’ve been saved for an honest-to-gosh soul album that could establish him as Eric Clapton, Soul Singer. If … these were the dregs and all the rest of the songs were better.

“Love Don’t Love Nobody” – talk about a long finish, this 7:13 Spinners remake goes over and over the same ground, but it’s almost justified as Eric the Voice starts out of the gate with nuance and emotion and just works it and works it. One of his best non-rock vocals ever.

“Revolution” – arm-swinging psuedo-reggae. Slightly seductive. It’s okay.

“Love Comes to Everyone” – eww! ouch! ow! The opening notes just hurt. I can feel the blood sugar level skyrocketing. When that whiny synthesizer really kicks in, this peaceful reviewer wants to violently strangle the perpetrator. And I thought Eric and the song’s writer George Harrison were chums? Maybe this is Patty’s Revenge?

“Lost and Found” enters like a monster truck, a heavy, stomping mother blues, which instantly dissipates in the chorus. Another too-long finish, and just when you think there might be some good playing building up, boom, it just stops, mid-note. Why do otherwise sensible musicians do these things?

“Piece of My Heart” – wimp city revisited.

“One Day” – another potential soul entry, a throwaway, from the sugary pen of Vince Gill.

“One Track Mind” – another of the possible three or four singles/radio hits that you’ll love at first hearing, then be sick of by the third or fourth time. Or sooner. More of that irritating muted bottleneck banjo or whatever it is bouncing around pointlessly.

“Run Home to Me” – practically as bad as “So Tired.” This one’s about their family trips to the seashore. Trips to the seashore are really important to Englishmen.

“Back Home” – so why is the title cut the winner? From the first notes: some meaningful picking (just happens to be acoustic) that grabs your attention, a spare, even elegant arrangement, restrained but expert playing all around, a sense of open space – everything just falls perfectly into place, and takes you along. Primarily, though, the lyric is simple yet profound and universal. Most of EC’s shining moments as a songwriter occur when he opens up his life in a meaningful and painfully honest way. Certainly we know by now how grateful Eric is for his new home life, but this time he writes about it in a way that applies to larger existential issues, using words listeners can plug their own experience into and come out with myriad valid insights; isn’t that the best kind of songwriting?

Speaking of songwriting, a quick glance at credits reveals a pattern: almost all the worst songs are ones he co-wrote with his partner in crime and co-producer Simon Climie, who is also credited with keyboards and programming and I’ll bet is responsible for all the fingernail chalkboard stuff too – no, I’ll go further, with absolutely no information other than a hunch, and say he’s probably responsible for every misstep here. Don’t know a thing about the guy, but let’s just say the great Clapton made one wrong managerial move, and Climie is it. Have him over to the manse for dinner, Eric, let your kids play together, but keep him away from your albums. “Back Home” the song good, Back Home the album bad. Figure it out.

Again, the first 11 songs are thickly layered with a lot of instruments, which is good when you hear something wretched buried in the mix or oozing out now and then and it doesn’t totally ruin the moment (but sometimes it does), but it also means the little treasures, the percussions and funky keyboards and horn signatures, are fleeting and hard to catch. And when you get to No. 12, it’s completely different: sparkling, spacious ensemble playing of the highest order, supporting a song with something to say.

The Dolby Digital Surround 5.1 mix was unremarkable; the usual separations but generally a wasted opportunity with an album that had some really good players who may have benefited by having their contributions stand out from the stereo mix. “Revolution” was a slight cut above, with some nice vocal echoes and instrumental ghosts, and clearer recognition of some reggae-style percussion effects that let you identify the beaded gourd and the tiny stick-on-grooved-wood that was so subtle it made me think my left rear speaker had developed a crackle.

Added Features
The DVD contains a 19-minute video of five of the songs, showing Clapton in the studio performing his guitar and vocal parts (big emphasis on the vocals), and talking about each song and the making of the album. I didn’t watch until after I reached my conclusions and wrote the review, and darned if his observations don’t explain (to me, anyway) what went wrong with this project. Note what he says about “So Tired.” He makes an interesting comment about Robert Johnson songs they’d turn to as a release during these sessions that I’d like to have clarified – is he saying that’s what became Me & Mr. Johnson?!? Because if it is … I’ve got a few more things to say.

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