No one has a bad word to say about Gary Clark Jr. He’s been wowing festival goers the world over for the best part of a decade with his genre hopping mix of rustic rock, nu-blues, and slick soul. Embraced by the classic rock fraternity and tipped for success since 2004, Clark toiled on the road earning a remarkable amount of goodwill with little fanfare. Sadly, the muted excitement surrounding the release of 2012’s Blak And Blu has revealed the tragic paradox at the heart of Clark’s career: no one has a bad word to say about him, no one has much of anything to say at all.
Clark’s understated rise and diligent consistency might not have delivered this phenomenal guitarist to superstardom, but there is a lingering feeling, a tangible sense, that he is destined for greater things. He’s too talented, too dexterous, too good at seemingly everything to wilt in obscurity. Blak And Blu certainly feels pointed; Clark Jnr has conjured his most monumental riffs, his highest falsettos, and the best-loved tracks from his recent Bright Lights EP in an attempt at finally breaking through.
This newfound impetus informs Blak And Blu’s every creative avenue. The lyric sheet of “Glitter Ain’t Gold (Jumpin’ For Nothin’)” might read like a traditional lament, but it plays like a rip snorting stadium rocker - complete with country twangs and revving riffs. His fuzzed out tone continues to dominate, and Clark brings some “Kashmir” sized riffage to “Numb” - his stab at The Black Keys/Jack White’s brand of wild-eyed blues-rock. His ideas never quite feel fresh, but Clark knows how to execute. The despondent “When My Train Pulls In” is a fine addition to America’s rich cannon of observational wanderers anthems – where Dylan’s tongue would dissect, Clark’s guitar bleeds.
Lyricism isn’t Clark’s strong suit. He tends to lean on cliché in both his best and most indifferent work. He rarely provides lasting hooks or stand out couplets, but that doesn’t stop Clark from delivering serviceable slices of swooning soul (“Please Come Home”) and Bruno Mars style sunshine pop (“The Life”). He might sell a few more records if he stuck to the latter, but like the narrator of “When My Train Pulls In”, Clark doesn’t stay in any one place for very long. There are howling rock’n’roll thrills to be had (“Travis County”), brass bolstered party starters to unveil (“Ain’t Messing Around”), and lonesome R’n’B to whisper (“Things Are Changin’”).
Clark deserves admiration for throwing himself headlong into a wildly diverse set of stylistic challenges. He survives his forays into unguarded soul and sweet pop, and, naturally, he nails the bruising riff driven rock (even if the extended scratching psychedelia of Third Stone From The Sun” is pushing it). Sadly while the individual elements might be enjoyable, Blak And Blu is an arduous and overproduced listen. Clark rarely fails outright but by channeling his pointed intensity into so many different avenues he’s created an inaccessible porcupine of a record that few will dare pick up. The juxtapositions are wild and unnatural. The listener is drawn in, only to be spurned by a sudden change of direction, mood, and message. Blak And Blu plays like a poorly curated generation spanning greatest hits set – without the inherent familiarity or, frankly, the hits.
Buy If:you enjoy the variety of Gary Clark Jnr’s live shows and won’t be phased by a scatter gun LP.
Skip If:you’re after a cohesive start to finish experience.
Best Track:“When My Train Pulls In”
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