Eric Clapton basically makes two kinds of solo albums. There are his escapes from the strict letter and law of electric blues: the brisk white soul of 1970’s Eric Clapton; the cruising-speed funk and reggae on 1974’s 461 Ocean Boulevard; the 1992 smash Unplugged. Then there are the homecomings, like 2000’s Riding With the King, made with his idol B.B. King, and the 2004 Robert Johnson tribute, Me and Mr. Johnson.
Clapton is both impulses in one record, for the first time: a serenely masterful engagement with roots — the guitarist co-wrote just one original — that is all over the place in repertoire yet devoutly grounded in its roaming. Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean” comes with an earnest, sandy Clapton vocal and lighthouse beams of trumpet by Wynton Marsalis. Little Walter’s “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer” has the crusty flair of Clapton’s 1965 and ’66 recordings with John Mayall. A pair of Fats Waller romps are decked out in New Orleans brass and pianos, one of them played by Allen Toussaint.
If you need the old prowess, stick to the live half of Cream’s Wheels of Fire. In “Hard Times Blues,” first cut in 1935 by the obscure St. Louis bluesman Lane Hardin, Clapton doesn’t even solo — he robustly strums a mandolin. Guitarist Doyle Bramhall II, his co-producer, does the electric-slide honors. Derek Trucks contributes the wiry bottleneck flourishes in Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rocking Chair,” a porch-party memoir (that’s how Louis Armstrong first did it in 1929) that Clapton strips back, in his own guitar fills and singing, to a slow, dusty breeze. Even when Clapton steps out on guitar in the J.J. Cale song “Everything Will Be Alright,” the notes come in jabs and bursts, in a rounded jazzy tone against a soft bed of strings. It’s still blues, but in the way King made satin feel down home in “The Thrill Is Gone.”
As a bluesman, Clapton has had his doctrinaire moments: He quit the Yardbirds in 1965 because he thought they’d gone soft. But one of his first original songs on record was a hymn, “Presence of the Lord,” on Blind Faith, and Clapton’s dogged connection to the blues is a lot about thanks — for the empowering solace he always finds there. The opening track on Clapton, Lil’ Son Jackson’s “Travelin’ Alone,” is outfitted in gritty comforts: a slinky groove, soul-bar organ and telegraphic spurts of guitar. And the closing version of “Autumn Leaves” should not come as a shock. The song has, in its way, the same weight of regret as Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” and Clapton, who knows loss and redemption well, sings it with a straight low-sugar class that is perfectly blue.
Inevitably, perhaps, Clapton’s one new song, “Run Back to Your Side,” written with Bramhall, doesn’t sound old enough, too close to Clapton’s hit cover of Cale’s “After Midnight.” Much better is the way those two reunite here in the Robert Wilkins blues “That’s No Way to Get Along” (covered by the Rolling Stones as “Prodigal Son” on Beggars Banquet). Clapton and Cale throw lines back and forth like pilgrims sharing a ride, in near-twin growls over a bumpy-road rhythm. Bramhall does the slide work again, but it is Clapton’s firm rhythm work — rolling clusters of licks and strum — that keeps pushing the song, and band, all the way home.