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Critics' Choice
GARY CLARK JR. MAKES LAND
2/14/19

Full disclosure: While I’ve long admired Gary Clark, Jr. as a player, singer and writer—with the chops to handle blues, soul, rock and pop, no question—never before, apart from the occasional hair-raising guitar lick, has he startled me.

Until now.

Clark’s new Warner Bros. Records set, This Land (due 2/22, following a 2/16 SNL appearance), is something new. The man’s prolific gifts are now attached to material with a far greater purpose than ever before. The material is in large part overtly political, full of fury and defiance and sorrow, befitting a time when our chief executive is an overtly racist charlatan. But it’s delivered with an explosive confidence and joy, with singalong choruses, blazing electric leads and a riot of bubbling grooves.

In short, it’s the great rock and roll record you’ve been waiting for.

Witness the big synth buzz that kicks off  opener and lead single “This Land,” giving way to wailing wah-wah and a barbed-wire litany of tensions and injustices: “Fuck you, I’m America, son/This is where I come from.” Now check out “What About Us,” with its ironic “there goes the neighborhood refrain” and shards of molten riffage. Or “I Got My Eyes on Me,” which rekindles the honeyed soul vibes of Marvin and Stevie in the verses before uncorking a monster rock chorus. On “Feeling Like a Million” and the instrumental excursion “Highway 71,” Clark manages to lace up reggae/dub and Hendrix-y bends in a way that feels fresh. “Gotta Get Into Something” has a bracing vintage-punk tempo that suggests Bad Brains rampaging through a Chuck Berry fever dream. The horn-driven “Feed the Babies” is a “Mercy Mercy Me” for the present moment, with a “Trouble Man” strut. He channels Prince through both his voice and his fingers on the stomping, heart-baring soul of “Pearl Cadillac.” There’s a Temptations glow to the stutter-step singalong “When I’m Gone.”

It seems no corner of the musical universe exceeds Clark’s grasp, and each eclectic element reinforces a humanistic, yearning, raging, hopeful, disgusted, insistent perspective—in other words, exactly what our daily crisis demands.

Not that Clark has abandoned the blues. The acoustic “The Governor,” replete with saucy slide, is both authoritative and tongue-in-cheek; closing cut “Dirty Dishes Blues” brings This Land back down to earth—with a Delta-style lament that plays like a nod to fellow Texan Albert Colins’ “Too Many Dirty Dishes.”

Of course, Clark remains one of the premier guitarists of his generation, and the array of miracles he can conjure from his axe—whether it’s screaming or swooning—is as central to his mystique as ever.

Will a record this full of purpose and guitar cut through the noise? I haven’t the faintest idea. But I know it’ll give a lot of hope and inspiration to rock fans.