Gary Clark Jr might be the finest blues guitarist alive. His breakthrough debut, Blak and Blu, and his Live at KUT sessions should be proof of that. It takes a lot of guts to cover Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun” as he did on that first album, and even more skills to pull it off. I’ve been following him since stumbling onto the promotional single for Blak and Blu, “Ain’t Messin’ Around,” in 2012. It was seeing him live that I discovered my favorite current band on the planet, Black Pistol Fire. But 2015’s Story of Sonny Boy Slim left a lot to be desired. It wasn’t bad, but from the hottest guitar player in the country, it was very lacking in licks and solos.
On February 22, Clark released his 3rd album, This Land. It is more like his first album than his second, but is still very much a departure from his previous styles and is a fresh new use of this virtuoso’s abilities. His guitar chops shine clearly on the tracks that showcase them, while those songs are balanced by sweet, softer rhythm and blues styled cuts, and there’s even some classic blues blended in towards the end.
In the case of the former, there’s the powerful, haunting title track, “This Land.” Released as a promotional single, I’ve had more time to digest this one and it needs it. Clark uses the n-word not as the affectionate term to refer to compatriots like NWA or Childish Gambino might, but puts it in the mouth of a white man to use it as the powerful and dangerous slur that it has been historically. “Fuck you I’m America, son” is a beautiful and perfect response to the cries for an ethnostate this song is pleading against. Clark’s political bend continues on “What About Us,” an effective assault on the systematic exclusion of African Americans.
But politics isn’t all this album is about. It mostly consists of love songs. The exceptionally powerful “Pearl Cadillac,” plodding in rhythm and deeply moving, is an ode to a person who’s helped Clark every step of the way, and his search to find a way to repay her. “I remember when I left home in that pearl Cadillac/I was searching for some kind of way to pay you back” rings so true to anyone who’s ever felt emotionally in debt to another.
Clark’s veins also pulse with classic rhythm and blues. The Jackson 5-esque harmonies on “Guitar Man,” the Curtis Mayfield licks on “Feed The Babies”, or his Sly Stone homage “What About Us” are all elements you could point to to illustrate how deeply steeped in 70s soul Clark is, and all are fantastic examples of how Clark can make these sounds feel relevant in 2019. On “Pearl Cadillac” he croons like Marvin Gaye and on “When I Get Home” he swings like James Brown. On these R&B tracks, Clark showcases that he can achieve that great motown sound he got on Sonny Boy Slim while also incorporating his beautiful and fantastic guitar skills.
There is also a little it of straight up blues on this song. Notably “The Governor” sounds like a Leadbelly song on a six string guitar (oddly, the lyrics fit Leadbelly’s narrative of Louisiana Governor OK Allen pardoning him). It swings like a good old blues and is jaunty like a Big Bill Broonzy tune. Meanwhile, “Dirty Dishes Blues” feels like a classic Lightnin’ Hopkins song that was never released, rerecorded with just a tad more fuzz than Lightnin’ ever used.
Overall, This Land is Gary Clark Jr’s great triumph after the slump of his sophomore album. It is solid rhythmically, it excels in musicianship, and it feels very relevant to 2019 in a way neither of his previous albums felt at their times. Hopefully, that relevance will help Clark be recognized by a larger audience.
This Land is out now on Spotify and Amazon as vinyl, CD, and digital download.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.
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