Eric Clapton’s solo albums have tended to be so evenhanded and laconic that they often seem interchangeable. His pain was always so apparent that every move he made seemed frozen for eternity. At first glance, Slow Hand does nothing to alter that pattern — a few good tracks interspersed between the usual filler — but there’s a lot more going on here beneath the surface. Clapton is showing signs of psychic rehabilitation. His love songs are pointedly realistic. In a chilling moment of self-revelation called “Next Time You See Her,” he focuses his long-sublimated anger at losing his lover. Perhaps most importantly, for the first time since leaving Cream he seems comfortable with his image as the hotshot guitarist, using his old Yardbirds nickname for the album title and flashing the old superstar form.
The pyrotechnics are mostly restricted to a long (8:42) jam, “The Core.” The band (Dick Sims on keyboards, Jamie Oldaker on drums, bassist Carl Radle and guitarist George Terry) rolls into a boogie rhythm reminiscent of Derek and the Dominoes. Mel Collins blows a searing, double-tracked soprano sax break, and Eric takes off on a lightning solo that sounds more like his classic run on “Crossroads” than anything he’s done since. Glyn Johns’ production is superb — the guitar/drums relationship is crisp and authoritative, powerhouse Clapton caught in a glimpse of white hot frenzy.
Except for Eric’s great slide guitar playing on the hard-edged slow blues, “Mean Old Frisco,” the rest of the album is more subdued, with the influence of country songwriter Don Williams dominating Eric’s writing. The devotional love song, “Wonderful Tonight,” the sprightly shuffle “Lay Down Sally” and the calmly vengeful “Next Time You See Her” have the same modest intensity and forthrightness of “We’re All the Way,” the Williams song Clapton covers here. On “Next Time You See Her” Clapton sings, “And if you see her again, I will surely kill you,” an unusual enough sentiment for him. But the line is all the more powerful because it is delivered quietly, with matter-of-fact resignation and even a touch of sympathy for the guy who will be his victim. In as striking of an effect as this it’s easy to see that Clapton has learned the lesson he’s been striving for all these years. He is in touch with the horrible moral power and long-suffering self-righteousness that is the essence of the blues. And that knowledge gives him the power to stand up and be himself.