Gary Clark Jr., This Land (Warner Bros.)
Gary Clark Jr. was born in the wrong era. In the 1960s or ’70s, he could easily have forged a career as a first-rank guitar hero — a Texan blues-rocker who can step on any stage and bring the place down with a searing guitar solo.
Prospects are different in the 21st century. The idea of a guitar hero was thoroughly undermined by punk and then pushed aside by increasingly computerized pop, dance music, and hip-hop. In 2019, Clark is an exceedingly rare figure, a bluesman with a major-label recording contract and a worldwide audience, one he has built by tearing up stage after stage, show after show.
On This Land, his third major-label album, his songwriting has caught up with his playing. It has something to do with experience; now 35, Clark has been performing since his teens. It has something to do with the power of contrariness: Clark is determined to deliver the raw, analog, spontaneous opposite of crisply quantized digital content. And it has a lot to do with America in 2019, where division, frustration, and rage need an outlet.
The title song of This Land has the singer settling in on his new ranch “in the middle of Trump country,” facing racist neighbors who want him to “go back where you came from.” He snarls right back: “I’m America’s son. This is where I come from.” It’s a reggae vamp pumped up to rock volume, with blues licks spiraling between the vocal lines.
The sound of the album conjures the impact of Clark’s live band: sweaty, bristling, and unkempt, full of live-wire loose ends. Clark produced it with Jacob Sciba, his engineer turned co-producer. And the credits reveal that Clark not only sings and plays guitar, as he does onstage, but also supplies keyboards and programming, abetted by a drummer and a bassist. His songwriting dips into funk, R&B, reggae, metal, arena-rock, and hip-hop.
He harks back to foot-stomping country blues in “The Governor,” a sardonic take on the justice system, and in the lovelorn “Dirty Dishes Blues.” He forges links from the Ramones to Chuck Berry to the Rolling Stones in “Gotta Get into Something,” a burst of insomniac adrenaline. His falsettos in “Feed the Babies” and “Pearl Cadillac” echo Curtis Mayfield and Prince, as he sings about parental responsibility and his own gratitude to his mother. “I Got My Eyes on You” emerges from a roiling cauldron of organ and guitar, like early Santana, to pledge unswerving love.
Each stylistic choice draws on the spirit of the blues: its strength and tribulation, its cantankerousness and pain. “Don’t Wait Til Tomorrow” is a remorseful R&B ballad about infidelity, a confession, and a too-late plea to stay together. The track is laced with a pitched-up sample of the words “Baby please!” That sample comes from Mississippi bluesman Elmore James. It’s one more way Clark insists that the past has everything to do with the present. — Jon Pareles/The New York Times