Chuck Berry’s final album, being released less than three months after his passing, may be more surprising for what it resists than what it embraces. What “Chuck” definitely is not is any kind of typical late-career reclamation record — meaning, no cool, contemporary cover songs, a la Johnny Cash’s final records with Rick Rubin; no celebrity duets, as with Jerry Lee Lewis’ return to the studio; not even a star producer, a la Loretta Lynn enlisting Jack White.
What “Chuck” is, then, is simply a delightful, modest, robust, and occasionally poetic rock and roll record of the sort you’d have hoped Berry would have been releasing at least every other year over his lifetime, even though this is his first studio album since 1979. Yes, that last record he made even predates his “cameo” in “Back to the Future” by a few years. If Michael J. Fox stole rock and roll, Chuck Berry is finally here, belatedly unto the point of death, to steal it back.
Berry does actually make one sop to comeback-record conventions, which is to allude to his most famous work. “Johnny B. Goode” may not have been crying out for an answer song for the last 60 years, but Berry delivers one anyway in the form of “Lady B. Goode,” in which we find out that Johnny knocked up a girl back home before making his escape to stardom. (It cries out for another sequel, “Sonny B. Goode,” which we’ll sadly never get.) It’s the one corny turn on the record, and one you hardly begrudge, given how gratifying it is to hear Berry become the 5 millionth guitarist to blatantly plagiarize his original riff.
As fun as the continuing adventures of the Goode family are, the rest of the record is better. The opening “Wonderful Woman” is a straight-outta-1958 paean to a concertgoer who’s “rocking me baby with your rhythm in the second row”; having to end the show and walk off stage breaks Berry’s heart, naturally. That song pipes in Gary Clark Jr. for a guest guitar solo, and the other celebrity slinger, Tom Morello, shows up at the end of the following “Big Boys,” a childhood reminiscing that naturally equates maturity with realized libido. Somehow, the guest guitarists aren’t distracting, and neither is the notion that a 90-year-old might be too old to have female sexuality on his mind. He doesn’t sound a day over a very horny 40.
But he doesn’t spend the entire album in arrested development. You might not come to a Berry album to experience his tender side, but it might be what you stay for. “Darlin’” is the most open-hearted song here, initially directed by Berry to his adult daughter, Ingrid Berry-Clay, who shows up as a vocal guest on this and other tracks. Eventually he turns away from her to break the fourth wall: “Hear me now as I cry, oh loving fans of mine/The good times come but not stay you’ll find/Time will take them fast away.” It’d break your heart away if the piano-fueled New Orleans rhythm didn’t make it sound like the most good-timey ballad ever. Well, it will anyway, thanks in part to Ingrid saying “Yes, papa” and “I love you.”
His goofball side is more in evidence in a live cover of Tony Joe White’s country/R&B standard “3/4 Time (Enchilada),” with Berry updating the final line to make a closing joke about female software. But he waxes wistful about the ones that got away in the spoken-word barroom tale “Dutchman” and the surprisingly humble “She Still Loves You.”
For the final track on the final Chuck Berry album, “Eyes of Man,” Berry ends up elevating womanhood as something near godhood, just as surely as he objectified women on a more elemental level at the beginning of the album. You might never have looked to Berry as a feminist, but damn if he didn’t turn out to be one at the final hour after all.
No one will quite pore over this album for clues to Berry’s thoughts about mortality the way they did with David Bowie’s “Blackstar,” but they’re there anyway. Really, though, you come to an album like “Chuck” to learn what the upper limits of serious rocking out are, and we now know the envelope stretches at least to age 90, which ought to provide mere 70-somethings like Mick Jagger some comfort. It’s no masterpiece of a comeback, but the album does exceed nearly all expectations of how utterly lively rock’s original poet laureate might be after so many decades of rust as a recording artist. Would it be too much to hope that, secretly, he left a dozen more just like it in the can?