Between laid-back and listless, between the tastefully restrained and the downright niggardly, the line can be perilously thin. Eric Clapton's new album teeters precariously on the very edge, flirting with, but in the nick of time always just skirting, dullness. It's a tribute to Clapton's charisma and talents that 461 Ocean Boulevard doesn't succumb to the danger Clapton courts by playing unobtrusively with an unimpressive band. Still, it's a close call, too close for comfort.
461 shies away from the rich sonorities and lyrical, flowing lines that made Clapton an unhappy superstar. So determined is he to break from his past that frequently he plays dobro instead of guitar. 461 debuts a new, thin, circumscribed and circumspect style which will disappoint many — it has neither the beauty nor the power of the old sound. But rhythmically it constitutes an advance, lending itself more readily to syncopation. With its reggae and touches of Bo Diddley, 461 can swing as Clapton's earlier work did not.
What's disturbing is not that Clapton plays differently, but that he plays so little. When he steps out a bit, he shines. His compelling slide guitar solo on Elmore James's "I Can't Hold Out," his embellishments on "Mainline Florida" and his two extended performances on dobro are excellent. But generally Clapton takes far too literally the old saw that the greatest art is that which conceals itself. Not content merely to hide his light under a bushel, at times Clapton snuffs it out altogether. On several tracks we glimpse him only occasionally behind George Terry's chicken-scratch rhythm guitar.
Were Clapton deferring to a first-rate band his disappearing act would be less upsetting, but Dick Sims is a woefully trite organist and Carl Radle's bass lines are skimpy and perfunctory throughout the album. Only drummer Jamie Oldaker plays with some semblance of energy and imagination. The mediocrity of Clapton's accompanists (whom Clapton seems satisfied simply to accompany) accounts in part for 461's flaccidity. Clapton has always played best when challenged and encouraged by the presence of strong and gifted musicians such as Jack Bruce, Duane Allman and George Harrison. But there is no one here of comparable stature to prod and inspire Clapton, and the result is a comfortable and professional, but rarely a brilliant, performance. Clapton settles too easily for second best.
Clapton's vocals, surprisingly enough, take up much of the slack. He has become a far more self-assured and less tentative singer. Like George Harrison he sometimes sounds too doleful — "Willy and the Hand Jive" is not a lament! — but he attacks much of the up-tempo material with hearty exuberance. His best efforts, however, are on the slower numbers, especially two he wrote himself, the brief "Give Me Strength" and the more ambitious and stately "Let It Grow." These he sings in hushed, confessional tones which are so intimate and convincing he seems to be sitting beside you.
461 is also partially redeemed by the quality of some of the material. The folky "Please Be with Me," on which Yvonne Elliman sings as well, is a charming number reminiscent of Ralph McTell. Here Clapton's dobro is particularly lovely. Out of keeping with the rest of the album, and for this very reason outstanding, is "Let It Grow," a song whose grandeur and sweep date back to 1969, when Clapton and Harrison began collaborating. Clapton's new low-key approach softens and modulates the track, giving it a touching and delicate appeal. Other cuts are less successful, most notably when the songs and their treatments seem out of sync. "Motherless Children," for example, must mean a great deal to Clapton because of his illegitimacy, yet he tricks it up as a happy-go-lucky and rather trivial rocker. "Willy and the Hand Jive," on the other hand, is disconcertingly mournful. Such discrepancies between tenor and vehicle are indications of 461's aimlessness and uncertainty.
461 suffers from timidity, yet Clapton's utter self-effacement, his refusal to show off and satisfy others' expectations, is courageous even if it is wrong-headed. His problem seems to be an inability to strike a proper balance. If he is fed up with his reputation as a mind-blowing guitarist, surely there are other alternatives besides hiding behind George Terry's rhythm guitar. If he feels that long solos are pointless, must he go to the opposite extreme and play no solos at all? Clapton's attempt to demystify himself is understandable but excessive, resulting in an album which is easier to appreciate than it is to enjoy.