Clapton bares heart, but misses on soul Review: 'Pilgrim' can be heartbreaking in its pure melancholy, but the singer's limitations are painfully evident.

March 10, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

If ever a rock star had a right to sing the blues, it's Eric Clapton. True, he never had to pick cotton on a Mississippi plantation, but even so, he has certainly known suffering in this life. He grew up not knowing his father, had a long and tortured affair with the wife of his best friend and nearly lost his career to heroin addiction.

Perhaps the most devastating blow, however, was the death of his 4 1/2 -year-old son Conor in 1991. Although Clapton addressed this loss in his 1992 hit "Tears in Heaven," his work as a whole seemed to avoid the issue. In fact, of the four albums he released after Conor's death, only one -- the soundtrack to "Rush" -- featured any new original material at all.

That all changes with "Pilgrim" (Duck/Reprise 46577, arriving in stores today). Not only are most of the songs on the album Clapton originals, but many find him addressing issues of death, mourning and the meaning of life -- topics that have doubtless weighed heavy on his mind in recent years.

Taken as an exercise in bereavement, "Pilgrim" is a remarkable document. Although Clapton's lyrics address all the expected emotions -- anger, grief, despair and regret -- what comes through most impressively is his transcendence. "My Father's Eyes" is typical, a meditation on mortality that has the singer awash in melancholy and doubt. As he lies on his death bed, about to give up all hope, he suddenly realizes that however alone he might have felt, he had never been abandoned by the almighty -- the "father" whose eyes he seeks.

It's not "Lay Down, Sally," that's for sure, and as such, the album will hardly rank as one of the most party-hearty titles in E.C.'s catalog. But the album's seriously spiritual side isn't the problem. Instead it's the music's utter lack of edge that makes this "Pilgrim" seem so dour and unentertaining.

Rather than bring things to a boil, Clapton keeps the music at a steady simmer throughout. That lack of heat works well enough when it has the tang of tension to it, as on "Going Down Slow," where Clapton's throaty vibrato sounds as if it's the product of a man trying desperately to keep his voice from breaking.

All too often, though, Clapton's relentlessly restrained performances owe more to mannerism than emotion. In particular, he seems eager to recapture the sort of smooth soul approach Babyface concocted for the 1996 single "Change the World." But Clapton is not really a soul man, and although his band has no trouble getting into the groove, Clapton's attempts at aping the "quiet storm" singing style merely underscores the limitations of his voice.

A retro-soul crooner like Maxwell might have been able to put some passion into "Needs His Woman," but Clapton's whispery falsetto merely sounds anemic in the role. Nor are things much better on the title tune, where the clanking pulse and metronomic squawk of distorted electric guitar are meant to contrast against the tortured beauty of the vocal. It's a nice idea and would have worked really well with a singer as genuinely soulful as the Blue Nile's Paul Buchanan; Clapton, unfortunately, merely comes off sounding cramped.

Naturally, the album isn't a complete loss. "Circus" is a genuine heartbreaker, a sweet and slightly sad song that conveys the tragedy of losing a child without ever seeming maudlin, while the crunchy guitar and funky bass of "She's Gone" delivers the sort of kick boogie fans expect of Clapton.

On the whole, though, "Pilgrim" is a victim of its own polish and ambition, the sort of album that's easier to admire than it is to enjoy. Here's hoping that Clapton gets his old blues back soon.

Eric Clapton

"Pilgrim" (Duck/Reprise 46577)

Sun Score: **

Sundial: To hear excerpts, call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6151. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 3/10/98

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