Eric Clapton must want to be the Mississippi John Hurt of his generation: a sweet-tempered old soul who can communicate great pleasure and great pain in a mumble. The surprise is that he gets away with it so easily. In its way, Backless is a seductive record, if you’re attracted to the interplay of Clapton’s dolorous voice and Marcy Levy’s raspy backup vocals, George Terry’s slide guitar and Glyn Johns’ pristine production. It’s disheartening only if you’re still looking for a Clapton album with a hint of the power and fire he brought to his best work — from Bluesbreakers to Layla. Me, I made my peace with great expectations a while back. I like the new LP, but it wouldn’t make any difference if I didn’t.
There’s nothing calamitous on it. Oh, the two Bob Dylan songs must have been dredged up from the Sub-Basement Tapes, but “Walk Out in the Rain” contains a line that may be Dylan’s definitive statement for this epoch: “If you don’t want my love, it’s a pity.” And J.J. Cale’s “I’ll Make Love to You Anytime” must be the most dispassionate statement of those sentiments ever written. But even the “Lay Down Sally” remakes (“Watch Out for Lucy,” “Promises,” “Golden Ring”) are redeemed, most often by Terry’s stinging slide work. Clapton records are still a guitar fan’s delight, only as often as not, it isn’t Clapton’s guitar that incites the listener.
There are times when Eric Clapton and his Tulsa compatriots sound like a Midwest/British version of the Band. This is noticeable immediately on “If I Don’t Be There by Morning,” the album’s second Dylan item and its Big Mumble. It comes through in the rolling accordion notes of “Golden Ring” and on “Tulsa Time,” the only attempt Backless makes to rock out.
But Clapton almost never sounds like the Clapton of legend. He comes closest, naturally, on “Early in the Morning,” a traditional blues all too obviously intended as a piece of filler on side two. The fact that it cuts everything else here to ribbons is only to be expected. Eric Clapton is, after all, a blues-based artist before he’s anything else — even Robert Stigwood couldn’t rewrite history sufficiently to deny that. And for all of you still holding out for something bigger (or better). I can only recommend the immortal words of Howlin’ Wolf:
I asked her for water
She brought me gasoline
That’s the terriblest water
That I ever seen.
Slowhand knows what I mean.