Eric Clapton, ‘I Still Do': Album Review
Much of the talk prior to the release of I Still Do centered on how this 23rd studio effort reconnected Eric Clapton with Glyn Johns – producer of the guitarist's well-regarded 1977 album Slowhand. Often lost in that conversation, however, was the fact that Johns also produced Backless, and Clapton's less-heralded 1978 follow up actually serves as a better template for this new release.
Slowhand was a wonder of consistency and balance, with smartly chosen material across a spectrum of styles held together by a group of like-minded studio aces under the direction of Johns. Backless, on the other hand, sounded like a deep exhalation. Determinedly laid back, the album couldn't have had a better cover image, as we see Clapton picking away on a comfy couch. He mixed songs by J.J. Cale and Bob Dylan, and a smattering of originals, with older blues cuts and an off-genre aside.
Same here. I Still Do simply replaces the Don Williams-sung country song that closes out Backless with the post-war songbook standard "I'll Be Seeing You." Otherwise, from mood to approach to pacing, this new album works like a long-lost sequel.
He returns to older gems by blues legends Skip James, Leroy Carr and Robert Johnson, adds a whisper of funk to "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" from Dylan's similarly unruffled John Wesley Harding, finds room for not one but two JJ Cale songs (including "Somebody's Knockin'," which memorably opened his Slowhand at 70 concert), and rounds things out with a smattering of originals like the loosely improvised "Spiral." Other than a few woodsy turns on mandolin and accordion by Dirk Powell, everything is of a piece with Backless.
The difference here has to do with expectations. Back then, Clapton was still trying to live up to something, or maybe more accurately to live it down. Once known as a guitar god, he'd handed over many of that era's more intriguing moments to George Terry. It was easy to fret over a figure who seemed to dart away from fame every time it got close on albums like Slowhand.
I Still Do finds Clapton in a different place, in his career and in his life. What was largely dismissed as unfocused regression back then is clearly a matter of dogged perseverance now. This languid, reverie-filled figure was who he actually became, no matter our collective presumptions after his flinty tenures with the Yardbirds and Cream. That's played out in a solo career that still looks for (and often finds) new meaning from slow-burn explorations of the old ways, whether that be in an original song or with a now-seemingly ubiquitous Robert Johnson cover.
Maybe back in the Backless era, Clapton only felt comfortable enough to portray this kind of assured calm after scoring a big hit. Thankfully, the days of chasing trends – something which found its zenith on albums like 1985's Behind the Sun or 1998's Pilgrim – are long gone. With I Still Do, Clapton sounds comfortable, finally, in his own skin. He's not running anymore.
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