Review: ‘This Land’ doesn’t provide a cohesive musical identity

by Willem Gerrish | 3/5/19 2:25am

Gary Clark Jr. seems to be in the midst of an identity crisis. After bursting out of the Austin music scene as an heir to greats like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, he settled into a comfortable role as a jam-and-solo blues guitarist.Yet somewhere along the line grew tired of the redundancy. Starting with his 2015 album “The Story of Sonny Boy Slim,” Clark began experimenting with sounds that veered into R&B and funk, and his latest release, “This Land,” is even more of a departure from the traditional blues image he once presented. I would even go so far as to say that “This Land” is not a blues album at all. Rather, it is a sampler of Clark’s genre-bending experimentations, which hover somewhere between rock, R&B and hip hop. Unfortunately, the result is a messy record that has intriguing moments but lacks a coherent identity, sounding like the product of an artist who is still unsure of his own place in the world of modern music. 

“This Land” is replete with songs that call forth genres and styles outside of Clark’s norm. The title track sounds like an attempt at hip hop, “Feelin’ Like a Million” has the rhythm and vibes of reggae, and “Gotta Get Into Something” is an amalgam of Green Day and Chuck Berry. Yet none of these is entirely successful, with each coming across as a concerted effort to try a new style rather than a genuine artistic expression. It’s as if Clark made a list of the genres he wanted to emulate and then forced himself to write a song for each, building an album based on variety rather than quality. It’s no surprise, then, that the best song on the album — “Dirty Dishes Blues” — is the one track on which Clark allows himself to trod familiar territory: the blues. That song has some of Clark’s best guitar and vocal work on the whole record, played fingerstyle with Clark’s full-bodied growl on top. It’s a song that reminds me of Clark’s immense talent at the end of a record that lulled me into forgetting that same talent.

Another unwelcome symptom of the genre experimentation on “This Land” is the heavy use of electronic beats and synthesizers. Many of the songs are built on canned drum loops that give the music a synthetic quality that seeps through into the “real” instruments played simultaneously, often making Clark’s guitar work seem less raw and powerful than it might otherwise sound. And it doesn’t help that Clark makes heavy use of his wah-wah pedal throughout the record, imbuing his tone with artifice on songs that are already layered with computer-generated music. His soloing style is notably distinctive, though, and this allows the reality of his guitar playing to shine through at important moments. But these moments are not enough to sustain a record that, at an hour and 13 minutes, is already bloated and over-long, and they left me wanting more out of Clark as a guitarist.

As for lyrical content, Clark comes roaring out of the gate with a song — the titular “This Land” — that spews vitriol at racism in America. Clark himself says that the song was brought about by comments from a white neighbor who was appalled that Clark, an African American, could own a sprawling ranch outside of Austin, Texas. Clark turned his anger over that incident into the most lyrically significant song of not just this record, but of his entire career. “F— you, I’m America’s son,” he sings with striking intensity, making a welcome move into music that is not only instrumentally powerful but also has the words to back it up. Unfortunately, the lyrical quality drops off significantly after that affecting opener, and Clark descends back into unremarkable songwriting. 

What frustrates me about “This Land” is that I know Clark has the chops to make and play fantastic music. I saw him live last summer in Hampton, New Hampshire, and his set was phenomenal — full of passion, intensity and lots of roaring blues numbers that culminated in his barn-burning cover of the Beatles classic “Come Together.” Yet the link between that performance and this record is almost nonexistent — neither the music nor the heart beneath it approaches that bravura level. “This Land” simply falls flat, failing to give me a sense of Clark as a complete musician and songwriter at a time in his career when those things should be coalescing into a distinct identity. It’s as if Clark began his career with a tight image — that of the guitar-slinging Texas bluesman — and now it is disintegrating as he feels compelled to move outside that limiting structure. And that’s a sentiment I understand, as it must get boring playing the same old blues riffs for years, but I only wish Clark’s new musical pathway weren’t so incoherent. Perhaps this is just a time of flux, and Clark is working things out on his way to something truly incredible. I can only hope that’s the case.