With No Reason to Cry, Eric Clapton has left the Miami studio where he recently fashioned, from blues, gospel and reggae, one of the most personal and convincingly haunting sounds around. The new album was made in Los Angeles with predictable results: the carefully sculpted, spiritual style of Clapton and his band has been replaced by a series of musical formulas.
Southern California cannot be indicted for Clapton’s failure, and there’s no reason to write off all the music that emerges from Los Angeles and environs, as some would. But like many others — Bob Dylan for a while, and the Band perhaps permanently — Clapton has sacrificed much credibility in his move west. In place of a band and true collaboration, he has found only what everyone else has found in the Scene: cronyism. Because of the nature of the Scene’s buddy system it is difficult for a musician to take control of and dominate his own album. The music men make when they come together like this springs from no long term commitment, and it shows.
On both 461 Ocean Boulevard and There’s One in Every Crowd, the two studio albums recorded in Miami, Clapton’s principal achievement was his emergence as a leader. Though he wasn’t writing much, he dominated in other ways: as an arranger, as a singer (the most underestimated of his talents), as the organizer of a first-rate and often exciting band. With Layla, he had made the blues his own music, rather than a translated and transmuted idiom; the other records defined the nature of those blues; from “Willie and the Hand Jive” to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
No Reason to Cry erodes those gains. Once again, Clapton is playing in someone else’s idiom, and though he’s too skillful to turn in a really bad performance, the result is much more mélange than masterpiece. This would not necessarily be so disastrous if what replaced those gains was more than a dead end. It is not.
Clapton’s old friends have let him down, and his new ones don’t serve him much better. Ron Wood, Robbie Robertson and Georgie Fame are here but in roles so anonymous, or interchangeable, that it’s hard to be certain where. Bob Dylan, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel leave their mark, but it’s gloomy. Dylan’s contribution, “Sign Language,” is goofy — it invokes the name of Link Wray and not much else. If anything, the song, with Dylan’s voice overwhelming Clapton’s and a sound that’s mostly polished and professionalized rolling thunder, is further evidence of Clapton’s backsliding.
Danko ought to be embarrassed: he is either inept or saving his decent songs for his solo album. “Beautiful Thing,” coauthored by Manuel, is the most banal song on an album full of them. The Clapton-Danko collaboration, “All Our Past Times,” is salvaged by their vocal trade-offs and what might be a guitar interchange between Robertson and Clapton. Otherwise, it is maudlinly sexist and pedestrian Eagles fare. Finally, we have found an Englishman even more incapable of singing country rock than the Rolling Stones.
A fine Otis Rush blues, “Double Trouble,” is the only place on the album where the sound is wholly convincing. But it is sandwiched between “Hello Old Friend,” a whimsical and silly slice of attempted innocence, and “Innocent Times,” in which the occasionally brilliant backing singer Marcy Levy tries and fails to beat Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris et al. at their own game. Levy proves her worth a dozen times here, saving Dick Sims’ otherwise mediocre “Hungry” (little more than a parody of George Terry’s masterpiece 461 rocker, “Mainline Florida”), and sparking many of what graceful moments there are. But she does not have a knack for soloing, as her spot in the Clapton live shows affirms: for all the beauty in her voice, she can’t control it beyond the typical white soul shriek, and she owns no style, no sense of interpretation.
The biggest loss is Clapton’s eroticism. Since Layla, he’s made the sexiest white rock this side of Rod Stewart. But here, even the best attempt, “Black Summer Rain,” seems feeble and hollow, without the passion of Layla or the sure-handedness of 461. Although Rob Fraboni equals Tom Dowd as a producer, almost everything else in the equation that made Clapton’s last few records great has gone awry.
The ready-made cheap emotionalism of songs like “Hello Old Friend,” “Beautiful Thing” and “All-Our Past Times”; the phony egalitarianism of including Sims’ song and giving Levy a solo spot she’s not prepared to handle well; the music, which vulgarizes everything except the purest of the blues tracks; the lyrical banality and fake looseness — this is the sludge from which the Eagles and the rest of the Southern California rock factory acts make their lucrative, empty hits.
This is not an Eric Clapton album, because he’s buried under a dozen other egos. Nor is it anyone else’s album — they’re buried too. It’s a formula in the truest sense: it always works — which is to say, it’s always professional in its standard of execution — and it always works the same way. There’s no room for risk, because there’s no chance for error — except the biggest one of all, which is to take things so safely. This riskless music is invariably boring — which pretty much sums up this album. No reason to cry? But only because we’re all so damned grown-up.