It has evidently been decided that Eric Clapton should shoot for hits, and, as a result, we get records as stilted and disappointing as August. Like 1985’s Behind the Sun, August pairs Clapton with Phil Collins, who produced ten of the eleven tracks here, co-wrote one (“Hold On”) and plays drums throughout.
From a production standpoint, Collins has proved to be a most unfortunate choice for Clapton. In a misguided effort to give Clapton a contemporary sound, Collins has assembled arrangements that de-emphasize guitars and rely on keyboard and percussion effects (and occasionally horns) to achieve the continual sonic action and dense layering that current wisdom declares is necessary for successful radio play.
This strategy, however, simply serves to alienate Clapton from the sources – hard-hitting, blues-based rock & roll on the one hand, irresistibly melodic, emotionally tormented pop ballads on the other – that have not only generated his best music but also provided whatever hits he’s had. Clapton’s recent run of successful American club dates dramatized the degree to which he’s capable of catching fire in an environment that’s stripped down and sweaty – as opposed to the electronic control and studio cool of August.
While four tracks – “Hung Up on Your Love,” “Take a Chance,” “Hold On” and “Miss You” – are either so enervated or artificially juiced up as to be dismissible, it’s Clapton’s depressingly misconceived cover of Robert Cray’s “Bad Influence” that truly highlights everything that’s wrong with August. Doing a tune by a young-blood blues guitarist on the way up was a great idea. But instead of getting tough and paying Cray the compliment of taking him on head to head, Clapton and Collins translate Cray’s charged tune into a poppy, affectless shuffle – embarrassing both themselves and the song.
Clapton generates some passion when he taps two of his favorite themes – triangular love affairs (“Behind the Mask,” co-written by Michael Jackson, and the aching ballad “Walk Away”) and the urge for redemption from ravaging personal problems (the hymnlike ballad “Holy Mother,” dedicated to the Band’s late pianist, Richard Manuel, whose drug agonies paralleled Clapton’s own). Just before wailing the solo on “Holy Mother,” which provides August’s most feeling moment, Clapton sings of a point “when my hands no longer play.” Perhaps the need to fend off such a fate – with a glance back to Richard Manuel’s suicide – forced Clapton to reach deep inside and prove something. Unless Clapton urges himself to those depths more often, August could be the prelude to a fall that offers remembered heat as its only consolation.