Eric Clapton's sense of well-being is reiterated on There's One in Every Crowd, but on this album it seems less a cause for joy than an occasion for musical indifference. As on 461 Ocean Boulevard, Clapton plays guitar with utilitarian economy but here it is also without the ring of purposeful authority. As on its predecessor, the lack of riveting or attention-drawing guitar work places the primary focus on Clapton's singing, which through experience, growing confidence and a touching candor has become as distinctive and as eloquent as his playing. But where Clapton sounded either quietly tormented or beatifically serene, on the last album, through most of the new one he sounds only languid or charming.
The album's opening pair of spirituals generates little energy or feeling. The ensemble (the same as on 461) affects a Motel Shot sort of casualness but lacks spark. Compared with the stirring religious/psychological songs of before, "We've Been Told (Jesus Coming Soon)" sounds redundant, while the reggae "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is clever but static.
The next pair comes off slightly better. "Little Rachel" is a sequel to "Willie and the Hand Jive" but without the earlier work's smoldering innuendo. "Don't Blame Me" is the sequel to Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff." The band, especially the exceptional timekeeping drummer, Jamie Oldaker, lends the right blend of the ominous and sprightly, but Clapton can only partially restate, let alone advance, the earlier song's mood.
By now the record is at least up and moving. On the fifth track, a remake of Elmore James's "The Sky Is Crying," you'd expect Clapton to play some guitar. But he conceives of this classic slow blues as a vocally centered one. He establishes the mood through his slightly boozy, offhanded statement of the melody. And when he finally solos, it's in the same mellow mood. It's nice but safe and I expected more.
The second side contains the album's justification, a quartet of Clapton originals, generally in the mode of 461's "Let It Grow." Taken in sequences, "Better Make It through Today" is the album's simplest and best song. It contains his most moving vocal and although it only recapitulates the struggle between resignation and faith that resonated out of "Give Me Strength," it does so with coherent and unquestionable intensity.
"Pretty Blue Eyes" and "High" balance lilting Allmanesque instrumental passages off against slowed, moody sections. They seem to float by without ever really introducing themselves. They do lead airily into the related but more substantial "Opposites," the lyric of which describes the same dialectic as "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and the music of which grows in vertical layers to an instrumental resolution of elegance and near grandeur.
Even here I get the feeling that Clapton is holding back more than necessary. Where there is conviction on There's One in Every Crowd, there's still no growth, no strain, no sense of challenge. Clapton also fails to challenge us; and it is the challenges he's issued to himself and to us, much more than his virtuosity, that have made him a pantheon artist. Those who have been moved by Clapton's work would be acting unfairly if they demanded a Layla every time he recorded. But it's also unfair not to expect some new challenge. On this album he doesn't offer any.