Whatever music Clark draws from, and wherever he takes it, he’s claimed his territory.
Gary Clark closes his latest album with some pared-down electric Mississippi blues. “Dirty Dishes Blues” could be a natural end point, a return-to-basics that marks an artist having fulfilled his vision and taking a look at his roots. The ostensible modern savior of the blues, Clark finishes what he needs to do and settles in for a post-peak stretch of covers album and festival appearances. That, or he just wants to take a minute to relax in an old tradition after making his grand statement. Given the force of This Land, that option makes much more sense.
At the start of the album, we get some dirty synth on the title track before the Clark’s guitar comes in. He’s “paranoid and pissed off” and he’s about to hammer out one of the angriest, most frustrated, and best political songs around, turning a real-life experience with a racist neighbor into a mix of genres bleeding out from the blues. Clark takes on the current US climate with fury, nodding at Woody Guthrie’s original intent as he sings, “This land is mine.” He’s got his “50 acres and a Model A” and he’s not running anywhere.
That track feeds into the aggressive “What About Us,” but Clark doesn’t stick to one mood. This Land isn’t just a protest album any more than it is just a blues album. On “I Got My Eyes on You (Locked & Loaded),” he seduces, but finds complications in the whole process, as he has to first come to terms with his own past and his own failings. It’s a sexy R&B jam of self-discovery. The track finds a partner in “Don’t Wait Till Tomorrow,” where infidelity sees a karmic comeuppance.
It’s not really fair to consider Clark a blues guitarist, if he ever was–at least in the rigid, traditional sense. Across this album, we get the R&B touches that were always there, along with some reggae (which tends to get an extra charge), and even early punk sounds (“Gotta Get into Something”). Each style serves the song, and each song serves an album that, even with 15 proper tracks and two bonus cuts, never feels like it needs an edit. Clark draws more from the Jimi Hendrix than the Stevie Ray Vaughn side of his lineage, particularly in his tone, but also in his sense of exploration. Clark feels both restless in his vision and like he’s arrived. He wants to do more than protest or seduce or thank or encourage, so he just puts it all together, and when his Marvin Gaye face is needed, it comes out; when Prince works better, there it is. But all of it now sounds like Gary Clark Jr.
Clark turns his guitar to considered but incautious use. Early in his career, he appeared to be the next great blues-based guitar-slinger. Those expectations were never accurate, driven more by his Texas roots and connections to Jimmie Vaughn and Eric Clapton than to his actual music, which drew from multiple genres. Even so, his live shows and technical skill increased his reputation. This Land puts an end to that, as Clark employs his guitar in various ways, primarily for texture and for conversation. We still get some fine solos, but his trademark skill serves something bigger. Clark, in this push for a full realized sound, has elevated his lyricism, his composition, and his studio refinery.
All of which makes it such a treat when he returns to the basics with “Dirty Dishes Blues.” It’s a simple but slanted reminder of where everything else came from. On the one hand, Clark is a blues guitarist at heart, but at the same time, that hasn’t been accurate for years, and it feels a little strange that he’d wrap up this particular album with a solo blues. That’s the artist he could have been, and maybe the one that some of his fans hoped he’d be, but This Land has just spent an hour demonstrating something else. As much as that something else is Clark’s movement away from that roots sound, it’s also an indication of how expansive the blues can be. Whatever music Clark draws from, and wherever he takes it, he’s claimed his territory, and those borders will only be pushing out.