After Crossroads, the twenty-five-year retrospective whose very title conveyed the importance of Eric Clapton’s achievement, there’s something disconcertingly modest about the title of his new album. A journeyman, after all, is hardly the most glamorous of workers. Yet there’s a sly sense of pride lurking beneath this title; the journeyman may only be a hired gun, but he knows he’s a damned good shot.
Which, of course, is something less than Guitar Hero, the opinion most listeners have of Clapton. But if Journeyman seems less than heroic, that’s only because Clapton approaches each song on its own terms instead of dominating the material to flatter his vanity. That may not seem exciting, but don’t worry: The result is Clapton’s most consistent and satisfying album since 461 Ocean Boulevard.
Unlike most of Clapton’s Eighties output – which struck an uneasy balance between the guitarist’s hunger for musical stimulation and the industry’s thirst for hits – there’s no formula at work on Journeyman. In fact, Clapton infuses every tune, from the vintage blues of Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me” to the slick funk of “Breaking Point,” with equal passion and fire. He sails over any hint of calculation in the radio-ready ballad “No Alibis” just as smoothly as he avoids self-indulgence in his offhand rendition of “Hound Dog.”
Clapton and producer Russ Titelman maintain a sense of scale throughout. Ray Charles’s “Hard Times” is replete with slap-back reverb and even features a couple of members of Charles’s old horn section. “Pretending” dramatizes its tale of emotional betrayal in the contrast between its buoyantly melodic chorus and the dark, stinging tone of Clapton’s lean guitar flourishes. “Lead Me On” starts with a similar set of emotions but takes a considerably less angry tack; the song’s sense of acceptance imbues it with a gentleness not unlike the spiritual glow that illuminated “Can’t Find My Way Home.”
Most telling of all is the extent to which Clapton’s musical selflessness contradicts the guitar-hero myth. Even on his solos, Clapton seems wary of hogging the limelight; apart from “Before You Accuse Me,” which finds him in a Chicago-style cutting contest with Robert Cray, our hero defers to the song in every instance. Yet rather than reduce the album’s impact, Clapton’s insistence on underplaying is a stunning demonstration of the power of restraint. He fills the album with solos so incisive that it’s tempting to linger over every note. And there’s nothing unassuming about artistry that bold.