It seems as if Eric Clapton's entire solo career has been an exercise in humility — as if he can't forgive himself for all those overindulgent psychedelic jams of the past, the Clapton is god superstardom, the self-destructive lifestyle. But despite the near-ascetic modesty and earnest commercial meticulousness of his solo LPs, the same huge spirit that powered his most tumultuous performances with Cream or Derek and the Dominos continues to inform his playing. As last year's live album or any of his concerts affirm, he can still let go with riveting ferocity when he wants to. And, on many of his later records, there's at least one cut that seethes with enough rhythmic intensity to prod — and frustrate — fans who can't forget the Sixties.
The decision to create expert, accessible, marketable music often results in a "nothing special" reception from listeners. Though the younger Clapton was earthshaking as a guitarist, he was nothing special, even rather shy, as a singer and writer. Unfortunately, great solos don't make for much of a career outside a group context. Beginning with his excellent 1974 "comeback" LP, 461 Ocean Boulevard, Eric Clapton began to grow increasingly confident and conscientious as a vocalist and song stylist. His blues were more traditionally rendered, with guitar riffs functioning as sharp, precise accompaniment. Tunes weren't merely frames for extended soloing. Clapton also began to acquire reggae, gospel, honky-tonk and country influences, treating them with all the humble respect he paid the blues. His production values reflected this sobriety, moving from density to clarity, from deliriousness to restraint.
While Another Ticket continues in the same vein and is quite similar to Clapton's last studio album, Backless (1978), there are significant differences. The band that Clapton worked with through most of the Seventies (which included the late Carl Dean Radle, to whose memory Another Ticket is dedicated) has been replaced. Second guitarist Albert Lee, who's performed with Clapton onstage, plays rough and pushes the star harder than his predecessor, George Terry, though both share Clapton's aggressive, rhythmic style. Restrained as it is, the two-guitar interplay with Lee is the finest that Eric Clapton has engaged in since his and Duane Allman's virtuosity on Layla. The other changes are the absence of a female backup singer and the presence of two keyboardists. These changes allow for arrangements that recall Bob Dylan and the Band.
There are differences in content, too. While "I Can't Stand It" is an apt sequel to "Lay Down Sally" and "Promises," it's tougher in tone and attitude. Another Ticket's cover versions, instead of drawing upon such contemporaries as Dylan, J.J. Cale or John Martyn, revisit master bluesmen. The Muddy Waters number, "Blow Wind Blow," is true to the Waters manner of slam-down guitar rhythms and gravelly vocalizing, though there's a hint of tongue-in-cheek in Clapton's easygoing gruffness. The uptempo fillers (e.g., "Something Special") sound like "Tulsa Time" and other variations on that upbeat, syncopated shuffle style.
One of the best things about Clapton's new group — guitarist Lee, keyboard players Gary Brooker and Chris Stainton, bassist Dave Markee, drummer Henry Spinetti — is the way the musicians maintain interest during a ballad or slow blues. The Band-type backup singing (by Brooker and Lee) and concise guitar fills keep a lengthy composition like the title track afloat. Orchestral synthesizers and piano glissandos lend an ethereal quality to the thematic inertia of "Another Ticket." This becalmed resignation, like the more energetic downers on side two, is possessed of an eerie apprehension of death that lends such a seemingly light-spirited record its somber undertone.
Another Ticket's longest cut, a beautiful restoration of Sleepy John Estes' "Floating Bridge," might be the most subtle, refined slow blues that Clapton has ever done, its surreal lyric unfolding between quietly emotive solos. Preceded by a country gospel tune in which the singer prays, "Hold me Lord.../I'm slipping through," and followed by the deceptively bouncy "Catch Me if You Can" (which concludes, "You'd better find a shovel/'Cause I've gone to ground"), Estes' chilling tale of drowning in "muddy water" is the centerpiece of the second side's premonition suite. The LP's closing number, "Rita Mae," which finds Clapton and Lee in a dueling guitar tag that's the hottest studio jam he's recorded since Slowhand's "The Core" (1977), is the only song on side two that's not about dying. It's about murder. As an artist often criticized for mellowing out, Eric Clapton has succeeded in making very popular music from an authentic and deeply tragic blues sensibility. He addresses both the heart and the charts in the same way: with a bullet.