Nobody ever said it was easy being God. Nobody ever said it was a gig Eric Clapton even asked for. The man has spent most of his career trying to deny both the implications of the graffiti first splattered all over London almost two decades ago and the magnitude of his gifts. With each post-"Layla" effort, his message became clearer: I'm only human; allow me to fail.
After his well-publicized bouts with drugs and a string of lackluster records, Clapton sounded as if he had finally gained control of his life and his music on his last studio album, 1983's Money and Cigarettes. Unfortunately, since that record lacked a solid single and was terribly untrendy, it was not a major success.
Perhaps that explains why and how Clapton was persuaded to participate in the slick but inconsistent Behind the Sun, instead of the great comeback he seemed so ready to record. The good news is Clapton's singing. Even on the perfunctory cover of "Knock on Wood" (a classic song, but he should have saved it for a concert encore and let it appear on the obligatory live album), his voice has a rich new depth, like whiskey aged to perfection. But neither Phil Collins, who produced most of the album, nor Warner Bros. honchos Ted Templeman and Lenny Waronker, who tried to rescue it with three formula "hits," ever push Clapton to pull one truly memorable moment out of his big old bag of guitar tricks. Perhaps Collins, who is, by any account, a fine singer, an excellent drummer and an inventive producer, was either too awed by Clapton's stature to make any changes in his songs or had used up all of his best ideas on his many other projects. Maybe he just didn't have time to finish the job properly. Only on "She's Waiting" does Collins employ his trademark cannonlike drum sound or creative imagination. It's also possible that, like an outsider stumbling upon a scene of private sorrow, Collins was afraid to intrude or tamper with the material. In contrast to the buoyant mood of Money and Cigarettes, Clapton's originals on the new album are filled with heartbreak and love's failure. (While recording Behind the Sun, he temporarily split up with his wife, Patti.)
Maybe that's why Templeman and Waronker stepped in with their light and happy songs — all written by someone named Jerry Lynn Williams. But Templeman's Doobie-proven cosmetic approach to production — the heap of synthesizers, conked-out congas, gooey cooing and tired Totos — almost buries the artist himself. Even when local nut Lindsey Buckingham shows up on rhythm guitar on "Something's Happening," his contribution is negligible. Of course, it's possible that in these days of easy-listening radio and heavy promotion, Clapton may have a hit anyway. On his last tour, it was apparent that the soppy ballads like "Wonderful Tonight" that have so disappointed Clapton's original rock fans have earned him a whole new young (and, surprisingly, very female) audience. And he'll probably be able to fill arenas by virtue of his greatest hits for a few years now. One shudders to think of Clapton really going in the direction Behind the Sun is pointing him toward. One can almost see him, like B.B. King, tucking his guitar beneath his armpit and segueing from "Layla" into a double-time verse of "Sunshine of Your Love" in Vegas. Maybe that's why he sounds so desperate and convincing, like a man who wants to jump not only out of his skin but right off the track, as he sings "Just Like a Prisoner." For Clapton, there's still time — and hope — for escape.
Behind the Sun is a party album compared with the return of Jimmy Page, another guitar deity, and the debut of the Firm, the band he's started with Paul Rodgers, the former leader of Free and Bad Company. The Firm must've looked great on paper — like the merger of two great families. Unfortunately, the result has all the passion of an arranged marriage. Everything about the Firm, from riffs to video, is as awkward and clunky as its Stonehenge-in-stainless-steel logo.
Paul Rodgers has always had one of the great throats in rock. Unfortunately, he has never had one of the great minds, so he has never been a candidate for god-hood. Both Free and Bad Company came up with a few classic hardrockers ("All Right Now," "Can't Get Enough"), but both bands ran out of steam, because Rodgers ran out of ideas. The solo record Rodgers released two years ago, on which he played all of the instruments, was continuing evidence that he hasn't learned a new lick since 1969. The material on the Firm's debut isn't much better. Rodgers even rips off his own riffs — "Make or Break" is a rehash of "Deal with the Preacher."
To be fair, despite images that range from banal ("Midnight Moonlight") to, at best, predictable ("Radioactive"), and despite what may be the worst version of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" ever recorded (due mostly to Tony Franklin's turgid bass line), Rodgers' voice sounds as great as ever. The same cannot be said for the production, which sounds oddly cheesy.
But the real disappointment is Jimmy Page. Could these sloppy, sluggish riffs come from the same genius who created Led Zeppelin's ferocious bite? Is it possible that the engineers who worked on Zeppelin's records really deserved far more credit for the sound than they received? If Jimmy Page's name weren't listed here and if his face didn't appear on the album sleeve (as well as in the "Radioactive" video), one might think that his involvement was just a rumor, if not a joke. The riffs, tone and timing sound like someone doing a barely passable Page imitation, hardly like the monster-chord master himself. And what either Rodgers or Page is doing with journeymen like Tony Franklin and drummer Chris Slade (who appear to be trying to imitate the styles of Page and Rodgers' former colleagues) is anyone's guess. John Bonham has never been more sorely missed. The two leaders obviously didn't want any challenges — musical or otherwise.
Unlike Eric Clapton, who may still be a contender, the Firm's debut produces the same awful, slightly sickening effect as watching old champions who've taken a few too many blows to the head dodder around the ring. Let's hope they're not down for the count.