Not that many years ago, people were talking about Gary Clark Jr. in terms of his ability to revive a fairly commercially moribund genre: the blues. But his third full-length studio album, “This Land,” makes good on his potential to make a record that fits quite nicely within the larger realm of mainstream rock ‘n’ roll. In other words, we’re still counting on him to revive a commercially moribund genre, after all — just one that happened to be popular a little more recently.
Single-handedly saving rock may be beyond the reach of even someone as famously dexterous with both hands as uber-guitarist Clark, but if you dig all the traditions he’s drawing upon in “This Land,” it’s a pleasure hearing him try. And no, we’re not talking blues traditions, though you can’t completely discount those. On this album, he’s more interested in paying homage to Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye than he is Muddy Waters, while never abandoning his screaming leads as he takes up a raspy falsetto. Some of the album’s best moments sound like outtakes from the soundtracks of “Across 110th Street” or “Trouble Man” that just happen to have Eric Clapton wailing through the whole proceedings at his most early-period-hard-edged.
In other words, “This Land” may be this season’s great white hope (in a manner of speaking) for a resurgence of classic album-oriented rock, but it’s also a first-rate soul record. And those things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
The 16-track collection opens with its title song, as heard on “Saturday Night Live,” and if you’re familiar with Clark and wondering if the tune is an outlier, it is. A harsh synth sets the tone in the opening nights, not yet quite establishing if Clark is going to go EDM on us or is just digging up a vintage Moog. Soon enough the familiar six-string licks appear but not all Clark normalcy is immediately reestablished, as he sings with no little amount of sting about being an African American man of means in a red state that may not be so used to that. “Paranoid and pissed off, now that I got the money / Fifty acres and a Model A, right in the middle of Trump country,” he snarls, raising contrasting hostility and patronization he presumably faces in quarters of his native Texas. The N-word is invoked, and it’s a pretty provocative start to an album for a guy whose fan base may mirror those neighborly demographics, to a large extent. At least a few casual fans may start tugging at their collars and wondering: Gee, does he plan to stay this angry for 15 more songs?
The answer to that is no — he’s getting most of the attitude reinvention out of the way right at the outset. Some of us might wish he mined that pissed-off vein at greater length, but it’s hard to deny the more agreeable pleasures that follow, which mostly seem just as personal. Once he gets the racial politics out of his system, “This Land” settles into being more about Clark’s internal landscape. A good amount of the record adds up to a concept album about a successful musician trying to balance the demands and rewards of the road with home and family life. That’s not exactly unexplored territory on a rock (or blues or soul) record, but it does feel like Clark is honestly grappling with some internal issues here, in a variety of musical styles and subgenres that all go down easy.
The falsetto-laden, slow-burning “Pearl Cadillac,” that other “SNL” song, is emblematic of where he’s going with a lot of this stuff — looking to make it up to a wife, mother or daughter who’s been left behind while a rocker took to the amphitheater circuit. (We can take it from the title vehicle that Clark didn’t write it while was still doing clubs.) “When I’m Gone” mentions that Caddy again but puts a happier fuzz-tone on a vow to a child to reestablish intimacy after the next road trip, from a “daddy (who)’s just a country boy living in the city.” Turn down the guitars a few decibels and this one could be an R&B chestnut from the mid-‘60s, while the following track, “The Guitar Man,” keeps to the same wayward-homebody theme while updating the music to the early ‘70s, when you might’ve heard a similar flute embellishment over a light funk riff.
“Feed the Babies,” with its mixture of self-conscious social consciousness and jazzy trumpet asides, is more squarely in “What’s Goin’ On” territory, or even the golden age of Blaxploitation OSTs. Anyone wondering where his Buddy Guy apprenticeship went doesn’t have to look too hard: Blues-rock makes its presence known in “Low Down Rolling Stone” (you probably guessed that from the title), and in the album’s final stretch, you get blues without the rock in the front-porch acoustic slide-guitar jamboree of the gun-toting “The Governor.”
Clark has talked a lot about his love of hip-hop, and for better or worse, you don’t get much sense of that here, aside from the random sample or hint of a loop. It’d be nice to hear him push that envelope more, but for an audience that may not have been expecting him to spend as much of the album as he does bringing up race or resurrecting Bobby Womack, maybe the envelope is fine the way it is. I also wouldn’t have minded him doing more than one full-blast, rapid-paced rocker, which is where the rowdy “Gotta Get Into Something Comes In”; that’s where Clark reminds us that Chuck Berry was a soul man, too.
But he seems determined to make a run at becoming a bigger rock star by way of a lot of old-school R&B sounds that happen to be highly compatible with R&R. That intersection is a hell of a crossroads, for Clark. (Blues allusion only slightly intended.)