We knew we’d like this when we read the reviews. We’re not fans of formulaic music genres so we liked some bits of Gary Clark Jr’s music but not the bits where he settled down into what he’s known for, rock blues. He’s a fantastic guitarist but rock blues is rock blues and does tend to sameness.
So when we read blues fans whining, “his worst album by a long shot”, “I’m really puzzled by the material” and “I had to wait until track nine to hear Gary flex his guitar muscles,” we knew it must be good.
But we were wrong: it’s not good, it’s great, in the way that Prince was great. It’ll go down as a classic, as Clark sings politically powerful lyrics to a collection of tracks that take in hip hop, reggae, rock and blues, with an overall feel that’s more funk than blues.
The guitar work is great — by “flex his guitar muscles” the fan meant “belt out a standard guitar solo” — although he’s correct (it will be a man) when he says that the Prince-like Pearl Cadillac is a great song. (Sheila E overdubs some percussion on the album).
The album kicks off with a punchy synth before a guitar wail for This Land, a powerful blast against the racism of Make America Great Again.
It’s bluesy, got a powerful hip hop beat and opens with “Paranoid and pissed off / Now that I’ve got the money” as he sings about the reaction of white folks when a wealthy black guy buys a ranch “right in the middle of Trump country.”
It’s not random political comment: it’s based on a real incident with a new neighbour. The title twists the racist belief in ownership of land to Clark saying he’s American born and bred and it’s his land.
“I worked my ass off to be able to buy a place that my people can enjoy,” Clark told Rolling Stone.
He said he considered it the most important song he’s ever written.
He told the magazine: “It’s about being black in America, in the South,” adding that the neighbour said to him: “There’s no way you could live here. Who really owns this place?”
His beef with the neighbour channels the racism he’s entitled throughout his life, “Nigger, run nigger run, go back where you came from” is in the chorus; “can’t wait to call the police on me,” he sings.
The rest of the album is as good but varied; When I’m Gone is 60s soul, while Dirty Dishes Blues is acoustic Delta blues, sounding like an old tune from 1920s. The Governor is stompy blues that sounds like Rory Gallagher; The Guitar Man is radio friendly pop that leans to soul, the aforementioned Pearl Cadillac is just genius; Gotta Get Into Something is heads down rock n roll, and though one of the simplest songs, one of the best; Feelin’ Like a Million is reggae. But don’t for a second think this is one of those albums that’s all over the shop. Clark’s guitar and Brannen Temple’s drums provide constancy, and even the reggae tune has monstrously big guitar on it.
Clark also told Rolling Stone: “Prince is one of the best guitar players in the world, if not the best, but you don’t just think about Prince as a guitar player, do you?” and we think that’s his motivation.
He doesn’t want to be the guy churning out formulaic blues solo to order, he wants to be ever-evolving.
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