Gary Clark Jr. Delivers a Comprehensive Blues Retrofitting With ‘This Land’

Over the decades, Rock music has grown steadily estranged from its Rock ‘n’ roll roots, and vestigial R&B elements are today recognizable more in hip-hop than in any subgenre of the increasingly meaningless Rock title. As a result, the select artists who revive blues stylings with all their undiluted emotive force, while situating themselves clearly under the rock banner, are a hot commodity, and a breath of fresh air. Such is the case of Austin’s Gary Clark Jr. With so few taking up this enterprise, it’s no surprise that Clark’s music has been enthusiastically welcomed, and landed him tours with the likes of B.B. King, the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton. Clark’s latest album, “This Land,” perhaps his most ambitious yet, is a versatile retrofitting of the blues spirit to contemporary music.

The album’s title track, “This Land,” is a sprawling opener, full of flashy guitar heroics. It’s certainly a spirited, if a bit hackneyed, opener, full of vim and vigor, starting things off with plenty momentum. Clark’s drawl is a hip-hop-informed, half-sung taunt that trails off occasionally into vibrato flourishes that are equal parts chain gang and gospel. Woodie Guthrie once bellowed, “This land is your land / This land is my land.” For his refrain, Clark sticks to “This land is mine,” and rightly so, as the song is directed to a racist neighbor who is “Paranoid and pissed off / Now that I got the money / Fifty acres and a model A.” The last line is a clever spin on the “forty acres and a mule” that slaves who worked on farms were promised after the Civil War. As for the Model A, it’s the successor of Ford’s famous Model T, and Clark actually owns one, which — let’s be honest — is undeniably badass. It’s appalling that lyrics like these are at all still relevant in 2019. At any rate, Clark indisputably gets the last laugh.

“What About Us” keeps the feel of the last track, but grows into a freer, loosely-structured jam. Clark puts on a playfully menacing voice that, at moments, recalls hip-hop pioneer Frankie Smith.  t’s an afterthought to the preceding song, with Clark reusing one of its lyrics, “There goes the neighbourhood,” an allusion to Body Count’s 1992 single. Things shift gears dramatically, and enter a whole new sonic sphere upon “I Got My Eyes On You (Locked and Loaded.)” Having got some rage out of his system, Clark settles into a dreamy R&B realm, throwing down guitar licks with a type of spontaneous inspiration that evoke, at times, the idiosyncratic stylings of Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth. Some of the primal immediacy is arguably lost when ringing, distorted guitars erupt in the chorus, as these generic sounds somewhat cheapen the mix.  Come “I Walk Alone,” this has further devolved into unabashed, rather tastelessly predictable hard rock guitar cliche. To make matters worse, Clark’s awkward, nasal falsetto on this track is unbecoming. On the other hand, you have to give him credit for his versatility, as he’s donned an entirely new voice, three tracks in, for the third time in a row.

“Feelin’ Like a Million” is a successful mix of genres, with a reggae basis, some hip-hop swagger, and subtle Caribbean touches to Clark’s delivery, such as his slur when he pronounces the word “love,” exuding abundant personality. The catchy chorus is mumbled with the type of cool disregard that has been a defining feature of rock ‘n’ roll since its earliest days. “Gotta Get Into Something” is an instant banger, with a punk rock drive that makes for a tighter, edgier venture. Clark’s guitar playing during the chorus nods to Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” and the liberally stacked “Whooh” in the chorus is an exhilaratingly whimsical moment. “Gotta Get Up” finds the addition of horns which blend deliciously into Clark’s soaring, mutating guitar solo indulgence. A bit approximately twenty seconds before the end recalls the James Bond theme. The seemingly spur-of-the moment, repetitive lyrics give the song a certain rawness, and make for a fresh interlude.

“Feed Babies” draws from a soul heritage that emerged from the same R&B origins as rock ‘n’ roll, but was abandoned somewhere along the way. It makes for a strain of rock that sounds distinctly African American and, in this way, is in line with the themes of the first few tracks. There’s a thoroughly appealing throwback quality to the song, with more horns, and Clark echoing the likes of Smokey Robinson in “Get Ready.” On “Pearl Cadillac,” the falsetto is worlds better than whatever happened on “I Want You.” On the other hand, the guitar is more garrish than ever, with Clark pulling from the same bag of tricks quite shamelessly. His sustained, rock star, bent notes and pitch harmonics are seriously old now, as are the big power chord choruses. It gives many of the songs a very amateurish feel, like “let’s go to Guitar Center, plug in, and rock out!” “When I’m Gone” is another soulful cut that strikes a comfortable balance between the retro fare, the looseness, and the raw guitars, and an unprecedentedly elegant interplay between instruments. Throughout the album, Clark alternates between themes of racial tension and classic love song fare, with this track neatly in the latter category. Throughout, he makes sure to drop reminders of his southern heritage, saying things like, “Daddy’s a country boy.”

“The Guitar Man” is a ramshackle hodgepodge, bringing together all the most awkward elements that appear elsewhere on the album: the “I Want You” vocals, some sort of laughable flute bits, the beyond-tired guitar fiddling. The song title could almost be a tongue-in-cheek bit of meta mockery, although it almost definitely isn’t. The saving grace is the one of Clark’s infinitely many voices that makes its way onto this numberulful — a raspy, soulful growl, almost like Otis Redding. “Low Down Rolling Stone” marks something of a return to the couple opening tracks, with sloppy, down-home, rootsy elements paired with stadium, distorted guitars. It’s essentially garage rock meets roots revival. Standout track “The Governor” is the most daringly throwback number yet — a charming, vintage recording with delightfully gritty, dusty slide guitar. Clark channels the spirit of blues legends like Muddy Waters, and does it in a staggeringly convincing way that more than makes up for any of the album’s less satisfying bits.

“Don’t Wait Til Tomorrow” features a pitched-up sample, he most overtly hip-hop reference so far, along with funky, wah-wah guitars in a spacious arrangement, with some evocative strings adding much depth. Finally, “Dirty Dishes Blues” exceeds even “The Governor” in its rootsiness, and makes for a deeply satisfying ending, fading out of the busy affair that preceded by harking back to sounds of a simpler time. The song trudges along at a slight drag, to which it owes much of its infectious feel  a certain elusive, swaying cool. Clark sounds absolutely in his element here. His guitar playing here is phenomenal, more distorted than Waters would have been, but without pushing it too far.

“This Land” is a big, bold effort that showcases Clark surveying disparate styles within the blues rock realm.  You need only listen to the first and last tracks to see the impressive range. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the recording is how freely Clark manages to effortlessly exude blues spirit, sounding as authentic as one could hope for, without limiting himself to the narrow confines that typify myriad throwback artists. The shortcomings are the cliched guitar stylings that Clark seems to revert to by default on at least half of the tracks. On the other hand, he displays such a flair on songs like the closing track, that this is easy to overlook. As much steeped in blues tradition as the music is the lyrics. Overall, Clark’s latest release is an authentic and ambitious record from a vibrant and versatile artist.

This Land” is available Feb. 22 on Apple Music.