Out There

The Dominoes effect

Eric Clapton
Pilgrim Reprise Records

To those for whom the 1960s are less a memory than a myth, to those who believe yesterday never means as much as tomorrow, Eric Clapton barely exists. His post-'80s output contains scarcely the hint of an echo of what he created in the '60s and early '70s, so little that you'd be fool enough to try to link what was to what is. At best, he's an overrated legend; at worst, Clapton has become a hack and a whore, a musician who has sold out so often he owns the whole franchise. His are the new-age blues now, and he makes music for people who only think they like music in the first place. Do not be fooled: Eric Clapton in 1998 is a business, a corporation releasing records because he has to, not because he wants to.

Such is the vibe of Pilgrim, his first album since the debacle that was TDF, an album so embarrassing even to him that he didn't put his name on the jacket (it was credited to X-Sample) or use his face in publicity photos. Desperate to prove he hadn't been left behind, Clapton leapt onto the techno bandwagon and was crushed beneath its wheels. Coming as it did after From the Cradle--his attempt to recapture the blues fetish that made him, for a moment, a guitar god to deluded Britons who wouldn't know Lightnin' Hopkins if he struck them dead--his techno foray was the question mark at the end of a career.

Pilgrim is nothing more than another sad coda, more adult pop by a man who was once the finest white interpreter of black music. It's tempting to excuse its mellow ramblings as the grown-up revelations of someone who has experienced the deep loss of family and friends. Indeed, after all Clapton's been through--losing his son to an accident and his band members in the same helicopter crash that claimed the life of his friend and acolyte Stevie Ray Vaughan--one might resist criticizing his work for fear of being labeled callous. But Clapton is no Bob Dylan, and he has rarely been given to revelation: Here, he too easily falls back on cliche--"I'm drowning in a river of tears," he sings on the album's second track--and too often buries himself beneath production that's garish and impenetrable. You can barely even hear the guitar-playing of one of the greatest guitar players of the past three decades; it's there, somewhere, lost underneath all those synthesized strings and electronic drum tracks. To say the songs on Pilgrim are tepid and flat, boring soul music so white it's blinding, would give them too much credit. Clapton sounds like Steve Winwood circa 1987, over-singing and underwriting songs until they sound like a thousand other forgotten tunes you once ignored on the radio.

--Robert Wilonsky


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