Much of Eric Clapton’s haunting new album is informed by the smooth R&B textures of his 1996 collaboration with Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, “Change the World.” Yet Pilgrim is the work of someone who has learned in the hardest way imaginable that although he cannot change the world, he might be able to change himself. On Pilgrim we encounter a Clapton who is heartbroken but artistically reinvigorated, a guitar hero who knows too well that despite that flattering “Clapton Is God” graffiti of yore, he is entirely human.
Pilgrim is easily Clapton’s most ambitious, introspective piece of work since his days with the legendary, lacerating Derek and the Dominos. Paradoxically both slickly polished and surprisingly intimate, the album is a loosely themed soul-song cycle in the tradition of Marvin Gaye. Pilgrim is full of big queries — “How did I get here?/What have I done?” Clapton sings in the opening “My Father’s Eyes,” a powerful meditation that alludes to both the father Clapton never knew and the son who so tragically died in 1991. From the song titles (“River of Tears,” “Broken Hearted,” “Going Down Slow,” “Sick and Tired”) on down, Pilgrim is the musical journal of an artist who has wandered into some dark places and come back the wiser for his troubles.
Most important, Pilgrim offers the bracing sound of Clapton fully engaged by the songwriting process in a way he’s rarely been. Too often he’s been happy to fill up his albums with suitable material from assorted blues greats such as J.J. Cale and Jerry Lynn Williams — at certain times in his long career, Clapton has seemed so retiring as to be a sort of lead special guest on some of his own star-studded records. Pilgrim finds Clapton writing or co-writing every song except “Born in Time,” an overlooked Bob Dylan tune, and “Going Down Slow,” a classic blues written by St. Louis Jimmy. The album is panoramic enough to include a little high-class mood music, such as the liltingly sexy “Needs His Woman” (featuring Tony Rich on backing vocals) and “You Were There,” a vaguely “Wonderful Tonight”-like mash note that sounds like a love song but is said to be a tip of the hat to Clapton’s longtime manager, Roger Forrester.
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Clapton’s songwriting collaborator and co-producer here is Simon Climie; the pair also worked together on 1997’s Retail Therapy, an uneven side project (recorded under the moniker T.D.F.) that featured heavy sampling and other modern techniques. But Retail Therapy and Clapton’s recent filmscoring work have apparently paid dividends on Pilgrim. The album is an intriguing musical tableau that incorporates old-school R&B, orchestral maneuvers and dashes of (gulp!) electronica. There’s acoustic and electric guitar, drums both real (by Steve Gadd) and programmed (by Paul Waller and Climie), and a plentiful and often inventive use of strings by the London Session Orchestra. Not everything works — the backing vocals by Chyna occasionally grow a tad too sweet — but overall it’s an effective modern context for Clapton.
There is wonderful, graceful guitar work throughout Pilgrim — no big surprise there. But the album isn’t a flashy axfest, even though tracks like “She’s Gone” and the straight-ahead blues “Sick and Tired” feature classic riffing. Pilgrim is notable more because it finds Clapton taking a great leap forward as a vocalist. Some forget that Clapton wasn’t even considered the best singer in Cream; over the years, though, he has sure grown into his voice. On the album’s sizzling title track, he evokes some of the soulful eloquence of the great Curtis Mayfield. And Clapton’s vocals on “River of Tears” and “Broken Hearted” (with lovely backing vocals and tin whistle from Paul Brady), the ultradelicate “Circus” and the country-tinged “Fall Like Rain” are among the most convincing of his career.
Pilgrim will not thrill those looking for From the Cradle II — most of this state-of-the-charts album sounds absolutely nothing like any record Muddy Waters ever made. But it’s still a blues album in the sense that it captures the sound of a man trying to tame hellhounds from within and without. In the end, Pilgrim is not purely anything, except purely moving.