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7.5

Gary Clark Jr.: This Land Review

Music Reviews Gary Clark Jr.
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In a recent interview with the New York Times, Adia Victoria, a rising Nashville singer/songwriter with a brilliant new album out now, said, “The blues need to move.” Both her album, Silences, and This Land, the third studio effort from Austin-born guitarist Gary Clark Jr., are the sound of the blues on the run. There’s a restlessness to this music that makes it feel exclusive to this moment, yet it’s tradition-honoring. And Gary Clark Jr. is a tried-and-true blues guitarist—a great one, at that. But he’s not a songwriter by trade. He can write lyrics, and in the past he’s written some decent-to-good ones. But his albums—where instrumentally masterful—sometimes lack on the content side. For This Land however, Clark goes out on a long limb both in terms of production and lyrics, and his game attitude pays off in a big way. Whatever Gary Clark Jr. lacks in narrative intuition he makes up for with six strings, once again proving himself to be one of the most impressive guitarists around.

In the Trump era, the urge to make something topical is rampant among artists. That tendency to retaliate and respond is necessary and welcome, but it can result in an influx of incomplete takes. The title track from This Land, however, is a fully-formed clap-back where Clark takes his aim at the current administration and the wacky, painful times in which we live, speaking in blunt terms: “Right in the middle of Trump country, I told you there goes a neighborhood,” he sings over menacing synths and tight electric guitar. “This Land” is the sound of a rightfully angry artist having fun in the studio—it’s unlike anything Clark’s recorded before, both in terms of production and social outcry. The old Gary Clark Jr. who remained mostly tight-lipped on politics is no more. He confronts racism in Trump’s America with gusto and fury. “Fuck you, I’m America’s son / This is where I come from,” he sings before confidently proclaiming, “This land is mine.” This track is not up for interpretation.

Clark is actually something of a crooner, a mysterious, guitar-swinging Texan whose voice ranges from diaphragmatic caw to romantic falsetto. He lets it rip and shine on the sludgy “I Walk Alone,” the remorseful sound of a man recognizing his own role in a relationship’s downfall. “I walk alone because I’ll always say I’m sorry,” he sings. “It’s not your fault.”

“Feed The Babies” is another instance of Clark flexing his vocal chops, and it’s also the epitome of this record’s adventurous production—organ, horns, pedal effects and choir voices abound as he sings “Come on mothers and fathers, teach the babies to talk.” Though Clark broke out of his shell when it comes to taking a stand, “Feed The Babies” is really the only other instance of vocalized protest besides “This Land” on the album. It’s a catchall hype tune, demanding we band together and rally for love and acceptance across race, gender and class divides. Maybe it’s a little too broad, but we can never have too many songs like this one in the world.

While the rest of the record is mostly sparse in terms of political angst, it’s still fiercely realized, competently produced and instrumentally savvy. On “Pearl Cadillac,” Clark trades his anger for tenderness, beating his chest and proclaiming love while blistering blues guitar and a sea of strings provide a supportive backdrop. As on “I Walk Alone,” Clark is again recognizing his own flaws in love, debts owed to his partner. “I don’t wanna let you down,” he coos. “Oh, I only wanna make you proud.” Even on “The Guitar Man,” of which Clark is presumably the title character, he praises the woman (perhaps his wife, Nicole Trunfio, or their one-year-old daughter, Gia?) in his life: “Whether I’m standing on the corner with my heart in my hand, or everybody is listening to the guitar man, I can’t do it without you.” This Women’s History Month, Clark is asking the right question: where would we be without the strong women in our lives?

If you judge an album’s success by an artist’s sonic evolution and willingness to grow and experiment, This Land passes the test with flying colors. Gary Clark Jr. thrives in a live setting and knows it—that’s why, up until this point, he had as many live albums to his name as studio LPs. But This Land proves Clark knows his way around a soundbooth, too, not to mention the news cycle. He’s a restless artist in the best way, and if he keeps chasing those kinetic blues, there’s surely only more good to come.

More from Gary Clark Jr.