What’s new with you, Eric?

Maybe there’s no great reason to pile on Eric Clapton. In addition to recently questioning his rightful place in history – as a musician – in a lengthy piece here at So Much Great Music, the last month has brought a substantial wave of, let’s say, less than flattering expositions on the life and times of Slowhand. In Rolling Stone readers blanched at an exploration of his unavoidably racist past, while at NBC News it was disclosed that amidst the long months of pandemic induced lockdown Clapton was not merely advocating questionable thoughts on what’s politely known as vaccine skepticism, he’s been outright bankrolling them. The reexamination of a man who many (probably most) observers of 20th century popular culture would consider among the most respected, even revered, practitioners of the rock and blues craft ever recorded has likely been hard to bear for the legion of “Clapton is God” acolytes who remember him adoringly for the prodigious musical output he created in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s with Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominos, and in his substantial solo works.

Which is, again, the point we wish to throw light upon here – his music, not anything outside of it – with the release of a “brand new” Clapton record this week entitled The Lady In The Balcony: Lockdown Sessions. Notwithstanding whatever opinion you may now hold about Clapton’s politics or personality, he is, to his credit, still putting out music – which, I feel it’s fair to say, is entitled to be judged as that: music. Hence, what then is that judgement?

A look back to look forward

In order to best answer that, I’d ask that we first rewind to 1992, when guitar-slinging Clapton went very much against type to record Unplugged (for the series MTV Unplugged), an all-acoustic set that chiefly covered reworkings of numerous of Clapton’s most famous, hard-rocking hits into delicate new interpretations, most notably for the all-time earth-scorcher ‘Layla.’ The album was a big commercial hit, winning multiple Grammys and refocusing public attention on the erstwhile psychedelic star with his revamped, decidedly low-key rearrangements. At the time, though, some critics were markedly uncharitable. The Chicago Tribune called it “blues music for yuppies”; AllMusic noted that Clapton turned ‘Layla’ from an “anguished howl of pain into a cozy shuffle, with the whole album proceeding at a similar amiable gait”; while the Dean of American rock critics, Robert Christgau, wrote that “Clapton-the-electric-guitarist has been relegated to the mists of memory, and ‘Layla’ turned into a whispery greeting card.” Personally, for the most part, I enjoyed it. Yes it was supple, and, for Clapton, almost alarmingly “lite.” But as a one-time change of pace, the ability to transform ferocious blues/rock numbers to a feathery touch had a certain, albeit limited, appeal.

Warmed over and over

So why bring up this nearly three-decade old recording now? Because the only justification I can think of, the only possible explanation there could be for this new The Lady In The Balcony effort, is that Clapton recently revisited that Unplugged album and shrieked with alarm “What on earth is this infernal racket?!” before setting out to make something that comparatively would leave Unplugged sounding like Black Sabbath. “Brand new” was placed in quotations earlier because this album, while a new release, in fact has nothing at all new on it. Instead, it’s basically a painfully flimsy collection of reworked numbers from his – remember – already previously reworked numbers, that would surely give Muzak a bad name. Indeed, heard side-by-side Unplugged might evoke a feeling of a rattling stack of Marshall amps next to the insipid, soft-as-a-baby’s-bottom pablum on The Lady In The Balcony that now regretfully takes up some fraction of maladroit space in the music world’s consciousness.

A poor encore

Who needed this snoozefest of an album, which includes defanged, infantile versions of otherwise lionized songs such as ‘After Midnight,’ ‘Bell Bottom Blues,’ ‘Key to the Highway’ and, incredibly, does include yet another anesthetized version of ‘Layla’? Perhaps even harder to comprehend would be the decision to also re-do the breakout hit from Unplugged, ‘Tears in Heaven,’ inelegantly mutating the tenuous tone of Clapton’s tragic but touching song to a disarmingly maudlin mess. Clapton’s shopworn licks are numbingly familiar, the accompanying musicians go through their mummified motions, and the whole thing comes off as a befuddled exercise of spineless faded glory. Musically, as an Unplugged redux The Lady In The Balcony is a feebly diluted form of an already profoundly weakened concoction. Somehow that premise seemed like a good idea to Eric Clapton. At the risk of sounding glib, maybe he actually was in lockdown too long.