by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Behind the Sun (1985, Duck/Warner Bros.)
Some purists might howl at this album, but Clapton breathes some new life into his music here by hooking up with ‘80s superstar Phil Collins, who produces eight of the tracks while Van Halen producer Ted Templeman helms the remaining three with Lenny Waronker. Naturally, Collins also gets behind the drumkit for several numbers, while Lindsey Buckingham, Nathan East, and Toto members Jeff Porcaro and Steve Lukather are included in the supporting cast. The album might sound too dated to some ears today, but the shift towards more distinctly contemporary sounds is actually quite refreshing here and makes Clapton seem a bit more daring, something he desperately needed after the formula of Another Ticket and Money and Cigarettes. The album also boasts a very solid and catchy crop of songs, including the fantastic opener “She’s Waiting” (which Warner Brothers really dropped the ball by not releasing as a single), “See What Love Can Do,” the hook-heavy gentle grooves of “It All Depends,” the light soul of “Something’s Happening,” and the skittering Top 40 pop hit “Forever Man.” It’s telling just how successfully Clapton has shaken things up here that the lone track here to stick out in a bad way is the cover of the Eddie Floyd R&B classic “Knock on Wood.”
August (1986, Duck/Warner Bros.)
Even better than its predecessor, August doesn’t deviate much from the formula that made Behind the Sun an artistic improvement on his first two outings of the Eighties – Phil Collins is back as co-producer, for starters – but it’s a bit harder-edged in its sound and attack and Clapton also seems a bit more fiery here, as a vocalist and guitarist both. It also helps that he’s got a fantastic set of songs in tow, highlighted by the Robbie Robertson co-write (and The Color of Money soundtrack contribution) “It’s in the Way That You Use It,” quite possibly Clapton’s catchiest single since “Promises,” the Tina Turner duet “Tearing Us Apart,” the Stephen Bishop co-write “Holy Mother,” the horn-heavy, Lamont Dozier-penned “Run,” the Bobby Colomby co-write “Miss You,” and an outrageously good cover of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “Behind the Mask,” with lyrics added by none other than an uncredited Michael Jackson. Listeners who prefer Clapton’s bluesier side could conceivably detest this album, but this is as good a pop album as Clapton’s made since the Seventies.
Journeyman (1989, Duck/Reprise)
This album was hailed as a return to form by critics who tended to criminally underrate the previous two discs, and it wasn’t at all uncommon to see reviews hailing this as his best album since Slowhand. That may or may not be true – August is arguably every bit as good as this disc – but it’s easy to understand the critics’ excitement, since Clapton is playing a little bit more to his original fan base this time out, skimping back a little on the pop gloss of Behind the Sun and August, emphasizing his legendary guitar chops a bit more, and also getting a bit more back in touch with his inner bluesman, even ending the disc with a fabulous cover of Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me.” But fans of Clapton’s pop side shouldn’t despair, either, as he’s still kept you in mind as well, turning in such fine radio fare as “Pretending” and “No Alibis” (both penned by the very underrated Jerry Lynn Williams, who wrote “Forever Man” and contributes three other songs to this album, including the great, bluesy “Running on Faith”) and “Bad Love” (co-written by Clapton with Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones.) The result is a very fine album that does a nice job of trying to play to all parts of Clapton’s by-now-massive fan base.
Unplugged (1992, Duck/Reprise)
Okay, we’re cheating a little here. This isn’t technically a studio album. Still, this album is much too famous – and its impact on Clapton’s career much too massive – for us to not say a few words about it. [It’d almost be like doing a Discog Fever column on Peter Frampton without including Frampton Comes Alive! in the mix.] This live album – recorded for the MTV series of the same name – not only made “Layla” – radically reworked here as a slow, lazy acoustic blues tune – a hit all over again, the song climbing all the way to #12, nearly matching the song’s 1972 chart peak of #10, but the album would become the first Clapton album to take home an Album of the Year Grammy. Clapton’s then-recent near-chart-topper “Tears in Heaven” is also performed here and is perhaps even more moving in this setting than in its studio incarnation on the soundtrack of Rush. But, hits aside (and Clapton surprisingly doesn’t touch many of his past hits on this set, nor does he include much in the way of self-penned material, though “Lovely Stranger” is quite pretty), this disc is overflowing with personality, as Eric indulges himself and tears his way through passionate covers of such blues cuts as Big Bill Broonzy’s “Hey Hey,” Robert Johnson’s “Malted Milk” and “Walkin’ Blues,” Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ & Tumblin’,” and Jesse Fuller’s “San Francisco Bay Blues.” Not only did this album do much to improve Clapton’s commercial fortunes, but the reaction (both from the audience on hand and the record-buying public) to this equal-parts-pop-and-blues set seems to have had an influence on his career since then, as he proceeded to spend much of the next ten years bouncing back and forth between pop outings and more purely blues-oriented affairs.
From the Cradle (1994, Duck/Reprise)
Clapton’s first proper studio album of the Nineties unexpectedly – though to the delight of many of his earliest fans – turned out to be a full disc of blues covers. Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” is perhaps a bit too predictable a choice, but otherwise the song selection is quite interesting. Naturally, much of the album is a bit slow and downbeat, as on “Third Degree,” the piano-heavy “Sinner’s Prayer,” the gritty “It Hurts Me Too,” the brass-laden “Someday After a While,” and the country-tinged “How Long Blues,” but Clapton and his band (boasting session great Jim Keltner on drums and former Joe Cocker sideman Chris Stainton on piano) do tear things up on the thunderous “Five Long Years,” “I’m Tore Down,” and the acoustic stomp of “Motherless Child.” The album’s biggest flaw is simply that Clapton seems to be more concerned with bringing these songs to a new audience than with putting his own stamp on them, and he consequently doesn’t always sing them in his usual manner, which ends up being rather off-putting. It’s obvious that Eric has a passion for this material, but one does wish he injected a bit more of his own personality into the mix.
Pilgrim (1998, Duck/Reprise)
This album garnered Clapton some of his worst reviews in quite some time, and it’s true that this album does have its flaws. A lot of the tracks could have benefitted from some editing, for starters, only five of the fourteen tracks clocking in at under five minutes, while the production [courtesy of Simon Climie, formerly of the ‘80s duo Climie Fisher (“Love Changes (Everything)”)] is a bit too cold and digital, with only three tracks actually employing live drums instead of drum machines, the programmed rhythms being an especially poor fit for such blues numbers as “Sick and Tired.” But the album – which also boasts guest appearances from Paul Carrack and Babyface – is not without its charms, either, and deserved a better reaction than it initially received. “She’s Gone” is funky and “Inside of Me” a strong album-closer, while the excellent title cut boasts one of his most underrated late-career guitar riffs and the stirring “Circus” and the stomp of “Fall Like Rain” are both extremely pretty slices of acoustic pop. The disc also boasts Clapton’s most recent Top 40 hit to date, the adult-contemporary-radio favorite “My Father’s Eyes.” Give this one a chance. It may not be his best disc, but, its flawed production aside, there’s some real passion to be found here in the songwriting and performances that prevents this from being his most disappointing album, regardless what some critics might say.
Riding with the King (2000, Duck/Reprise)
It’s not his best album, but rarely has Clapton ever sounded on disc like he’s having as much fun in the studio as he does here, and though not everything here works, you can tell that a great time was had by all in the making of this album, a full-length collaboration with blues legend B.B. King. The title cut, a John Hiatt cover, gets the disc off to a solid start, and the fun never quite lets up, as the two men revisit several of B.B.’s earliest classics to great effect, including “Ten Long Years,” “When My Heart Beats Like a Hammer,” the piano-driven “Three ‘o’ Clock Blues,” and the joint-jump of “Days of Old.” “Worried Life Blues” and “Key to the Highway,” the latter previously covered by Clapton on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, are highlights as well. The album’s lone major flaw is the inclusion of two new originals contributed by band member Doyle Bramhall II – “Marry You” (though funky and catchy) and “I Wanna Be” are by no means bad songs, but they simply sound out of place here.