Duck / Reprise Records, 1998
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/23/1998
Almost every music critic I've read recently has not had kind words for Eric Clapton's latest release Pilgrim - I have yet to read any good press on Clapton's first release of original material since 1989's Journeyman.
In that time, Clapton has had to deal with the devastating death of his son Conor, his elevation to musical sainthood courtesy of his soul-purging "Tears In Heaven," his return to hardcore blues and nod to present-day hipness by recording "Change The World" with Babyface. With everything Clapton has been through, we should be thankful that he didn't just throw in the towel after his son's death.
But Pilgrim also shows one more thing Clapton has lost over nine years - his edge. This album lacks the soul and emotion that Clapton could pour into one note on his well-worn Stratocaster, and is incredibly sterile.
Clapton is still reeling from Conor's death - the leadoff track "My Father's Eyes" is evidence enough of this. It is a painfully honest track, where Clapton struggles to come to grips with his loss, creating a song that is as beautiful, if not as tear-jerking, as "Tears In Heaven". Some have criticized the fact that "My Father's Eyes" sounds a lot like "Change the World," but in this case, it is very appropriate. Another highlight of this album which is a tribute to Clapton's son is "Circus," a song he performed at his MTV "Unplugged" session. (It's not on the Unplugged album, but I have the FM simulcast with this song... he did it, trust me.)
Unfortunately, this is where the words of praise stop. The raminder of Pilgrim shows the dangers of staying away from the studio for so long. It almost seems like Clapton is searching for his voice for the '90s, and fails to grasp either that or hipness. Many of the songs on Pilgrim sound like "Change The World" versions - and the use of drum synthesizers is a major distraction. (Why Clapton didn't utilize the skills of Steve Gadd more often is beyond me.)
Some tracks start off strongly, like "River Of Tears" and "Needs His Woman," but they quickly fall apart under the weakness of the lyrics and later songwriting. Others, like the title track, are just plain annoying - Clapton takes one riff and beats it to death.
By the time that Clapton finds his focus, as he does on "Born In Time," it almost is too little, too late - something tells me that many listeners will probably have bailed before then.
If anything can be pinpointed as the main problem with Pilgrim, it's that Clapton almost tries too hard to update his sound for the '90s - let's face it, it was a sound that didn't need updating. It brought him success with such songs as "Lay Down Sally," "I Can't Stand It" and "Forever Man" - why screw with something that works?
Clapton is much better than Pilgrim displays - if anything, this might be a sign to Clapton that he should make it a habit of visiting his local studio at least more often than the dentist. Those who loved his collaboration with Babyface will probably like the new-age Clapton. Those of us who long for the days of "Slowhand," two words: keep lookin'.