B.B. King is the greatest non-Chicago postwar urban bluesman, but in his later years he has cast wildly for styles, attempting to make himself “contemporary” in all the worst ways, masking his gifts as a singer and guitar player. King is a pure, unassailable bluesman, yet King of the Blues: 1989 is another mediocre attempt to make a timeless genius timely. Not that he can’t be up-to-date and inspiring; on U2’s Rattle and Hum, the sixty-three-year-old master takes over “When Love Comes to Town” from Bono with assurance and verve.
King remains a ferocious singer, so he can even make straight pop work for him sometimes: King of the Blues: 1989 offers a harsh take on Gamble and Huff’s “Drowning in the Sea of Love.” But King, suffocated by more synthesizers than you might find in Thomas Dolby’s house, is generally lost on this album. For four decades, King has been a superlative bandleader, but on King of the Blues: 1989, his still-titanic talents are wasted.