In the mid-Sixties, worried that the Yardbirds were pandering to the burgeoning Liverpool sound, Eric Clapton bolted the band to join John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Since then, that dichotomy has marked his career — through most of the Nineties, Clapton alternated suave pop fare like Unplugged (1992) and Pilgrim (1998) with tougher, more blues-oriented outings like From the Cradle (1994) and last year’s million-selling collection of duets with B.B. King, Riding With the King. But on his new album, Reptile, he does both. Over the course of fourteen tracks, Clapton blends virtually every style he’s worked in during the past thirty-five years. Whether it will strike your ears as something-for-everyone generosity or a patchy jumble probably depends on how much of a purist you are.
Soft soul, classic blues, gutty funk, gospel, after-hours piano and guitar excursions, lite jazz — it’s all there, and regardless of what he does, Clapton never drops beneath a certain level of mastery and taste. That can be as much a problem as a virtue, as the polished but undistinguished samba that opens the album (“Reptile”) and the polite noodling that closes it (“Son and Sylvia”) demonstrate. In between those instrumental bookends, Clapton hits his stride about half the time. He sinks his teeth deeply into Ray Charles’ “Come Back Baby” — his most passionate solo on the album graces this track — and he finds an appealing, soulful groove in Stevie Wonder’s “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It.” He comes to James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” by way of the Isley Brothers and, particularly in his inspired vocal, does a lovely job with it. Of the handful of Clapton originals, “Superman Inside” recalls the best of Clapton’s sleekly produced Eighties material. And, as you would expect, the players on Reptile — keyboardists Joe Sample and Billy Preston, bassist Nathan East, drummer Steve Gadd and the Impressions on background vocals, among them — are uniformly first-rate.
Clapton dedicates Reptile to his uncle Adrian, his mother’s brother, who died last year. Much of the guitarist’s musical restlessness dates back to his earliest years, when, born out of wedlock to a mother who was sixteen years old, he was raised by his grandparents to believe that his mother was his sister and his uncle his brother. It’s probably glib to attribute Reptile’s unpredictably shifting moods to that emotional source. But as Clapton says in an easy R&B stroll he wrote for this album, “No use looking for no one else/’Cause I’ll be lonely/Until I find myself.”