Gary Clark Jr has always been
impacting live but has not, until now, been able to really transmit that same
thrill and emotion in his studio albums.
That dynamic has now completely changed with the release of This Land (22 February 2019; Warner Bros Records), which builds on the variety and success of his 2015 offering, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim. Both in terms of the music and lyrical content this album sees the blues guitar virtuoso out there breaking new ground and taking risks, and the result feels like nothing less than a career-defining album.
In terms of the music, Clark no longer seems to feel constrained by the need to be a ‘blues purist’, as here elements of reggae, hip hop, soul, metal, funk, rockabilly and even punk can be discerned. His guitar credentials are well-known, but on This Land he also draws on drum-machines, keyboards, samples and synthesizers to add depth and variety to his artistry. In sum, it sounds like he has had a lot of fun on the production side in the studio.
On the other hand his lyrical range has broadened, and again he is out there taking risks. Powerful demands for social justice in, for example, the title track This Land, Feed the Babies and What About Us, take Clark into entirely new areas; but these sit alongside more intimate reflections about his success taking him away from his family, for example, on tracks like Pink Cadillac.
Clark seems to be more emotionally torn by conflicts both within and without, and he is no longer afraid to bare his soul about them. “If you listen to the album, my emotional state is all over the place. Every human being goes through ups and downs, so I just put all that on record,” he has said.
Clark used to sing Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Mine – which acts as a base for This Land - as a child, but growing up in Texas sadly gave him many experiences that challenged that belief. The American political climate provided a context for his rage, but it was a neighbour who couldn’t accept that a young black man had just bought a large ranch near his that finally made Clark boil over and write a track that contains the N-word, along with a torrent of anger to go with it. “I just wanted to let it be known: this land is your land, but it’s mine too, and we all, as Americans, as citizens of this country, should all have an equal shot,” he said.
The video that accompanies This Land highlights racist incidents from Clark’s own childhood and was shot by Austin-based director Savanah Leaf. The whole thrust of the video and the song is anthemic and is beautifully accompanied by Clark’s soaring use of his Gibson SG Gary Clark Jr signature.
The politics and the strength of feeling is similar on What About Us, on which Clark swaps his signature model for his much-loved Gibson ES 330. The next track I Got My Eyes On You, also features some cool guitar playing but this time the subject matter shifts endearingly to love.
More experimentation follows on Got to Get Up, which features horns, while Feed the Babies offers another change of direction with some Marvin Gaye style funky soul. Don’t Wait Til Tomorrow, another stand out track on the album, seems to be a plea to continue a relationship in the face of infidelity and artfully and innovatively blends Latin sounds with rhythm and blues.
This Land represents a big step forward for Clark, as he is clearly growing in confidence and skill. The blues and the guitar continue to be his touchstones, but he is keen to move into new territory and develop his creativity on all fronts. “I’m trying to be an artist [but I’ve been] put in this pigeonhole of blues Americana, and I’m ready to express more than that,” he said recently. “Quincy Jones has been talking about breaking down the idea of genre for a long time with his music. That guy has done everything, [and] I want to be on that same wavelength.”