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The Boston Phoenix Slick 'ric

Clapton's polished "Pilgrim."

By Richard C. Walls

MARCH 9, 1998:  Eric Clapton's Pilgrim (Reprise), his first album of mostly original material since '89's Journeyman, is as slick as you'd expect, fattened with the conspicuous-consumption totems of background singers, a real string orchestra, and a Usual Suspects gallery of famously anonymous session men (Steve Gadd, Chris Stainton, and Joe Sample, to name three). Although the beats are crisp and contempo -- hip-hop has left its mark -- the pervasive mood is a grander version of that Clapton melancholia which first emerged in the '70s, sounding less enervated these days by dint of a more expressive vocal style and all the surrounding sweetening that money can buy.

This much one expects. Clapton is a pantheon figure -- which in pop music (rock, if you prefer) means past your prime. Such demigods tend to make inconsequential if not boring albums (pace last year's Dylan) that loyal and usually late-arriving fans happily devour -- they may not have been alive or actively cognizant when Disraeli Gears came out, but by God they can tell their kids they were there, and alert, when Pilgrim arrived. Meanwhile critics scrabble through a rocky field of justification to glean, with admirable professionalism, enough shards to justify the summation that the great one is, in short, still great. Any smirks of dismissal can be attributed to kneejerk, besotted indie disgruntlement and/or jejune anti-social tendencies.

Feeling neither particularly professional nor particularly disgruntled, I would say that Pilgrim, which comes out this Tuesday, is in large part pleasant without being pleasing. The gleam of its polish is at first seductive. The background vocals -- mostly one person overdubbed -- are both extraneous and corny (does anybody find this sort of thing attractive?), but the London Session Orchestra, arranged by Nick Ingram, is reasonably subdued. Although its presence seems to have been dictated by Clapton's stature rather than any musical consideration.

Clapton has come a long way as a singer in the last 20 years, and the colorless crooning that marred so many of his '70s releases is long gone. Not only can he punch it out now, as he does on "One Chance" (one of the songs he wrote with producer Simon Climie), he's mastered a variety of vocal personae: whispery/sensitive on a piece of sentimental treacle like "Circus" and the obligatory "Wonderful Tonight" rewrite "You Were There," adopting a backwoods falsetto on "Fall like Rain" (you half expect him to start yodeling), sounding oddly like Curtis Mayfield on "Inside of Me" and Dylan on "Born in Time." This last is a Dylan song, and the tersely phrased lyrics ("Just when I knew/Who to thank/You went blank") make it hard to sound otherwise.

As befits the nature of the project, Clapton's guitar playing is more proficient than impressive; a loquacious solo would compromise the album's tightness. Still, as with the vocals, he can deal out a variety of modes, so much so that he's the only guitarist on the album -- a counterploy in the pantheon game (even Bill Wyman, merely a god-by-association, felt obliged to press a superfluous Peter Frampton into service on his latest project). Mostly he offers intelligent coloring, though he cuts loose on two cuts ("Sick & Tired" and "She's Gone," two more Clapton/Climie originals) -- which in this context means turning up the volume.

Then there's the songwriting -- the largest dose of original Clapton we've had in some time. His two preferred stances are a sort of wistfulness (which sounds much more genuinely wistful than it did in the '70s) and an ironic anger that's no doubt rubbed off from all those years hanging with the blues. Clapton has never been a notable songwriter, but (again with Climie) he's come up with a gem in the title cut, which manages to get a lot of low-key drama out of a simple seesawing three-note figure played over a moody quaver and a hip-hop beat. And though the song is disguised by a generalized refrain -- it could be about anybody or nobody -- it seems a more affecting, probing response to his son's death than the more conventional (no matter how heartfelt) sentiments of "Tears from Heaven."

As for the rest, I'd just point out that 73 minutes (14 songs) can be a very long time. And that if there's a signature moment on the album, it comes when we realize that Clapton's version of St. Louis Jimmy's "Going Down Slow" is doing just that: slowly, coolly, and without remorse sinking into a vat of cotton candy.

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