REVIEW: Gary Clark Jr.’s “This Land” is Stunning, Combative, Beautiful

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A couple of years back, Steve Earle issued a no-doubt-about-it take-down when talking about most of the male-produced music coming out of the Nashville hit factories, calling it, “hip hop for people who are afraid of black people.” I was reminded of this line while listening to Gary Clark Jr.’s stunning, combative, beautiful new album, This Land. After two (what some considered) underwhelming studio albums which didn’t quite capture his live fire, Clark got back to work and recorded an album full of rock, blues, Americana and R&B that people who are afraid of rap SHOULD listen to.

No discussion of This Land can be had without without discussing the title track, so we’ll do that first. If you saw his incendiary “Saturday Night Live” performance in February or caught the live stream of his “Austin City Limits” taping this month, you haven’t heard the song. Not really. Written following a dust-up with a Texas neighbor, it’s five minutes of unabridged, unabated anger at being a marginalized human being in 2019 America. It has the f-word (a lot). It has the n-word (a lot). And neither has been used so effectively (and necessarily) to drive home a point in a song. It’s a modern-day “This Land Is Your Land” from a man who’s had enough: “F*** you, I’m America, son/This is where I come from.” He’s not just AmeriCAN, he’s AmeriCA, just as much as anybody else. Also, there’s two really cool guitar solos.

Once that hammer’s been dropped, Clark still has more than an hour’s worth of genre smashing to do. “What About Us’ uses heavy vocal effects and chaotic instrumentation in its discussion of rapidly changing rural life. “I Walk Alone” brings in Clark’s falsetto for the first time at length on the album. “Feelin’ Like A Million” has a reggae feel with hot guitar licks fueling a dancehall come-on. “Gotta Get Into Something” feels like Chuck Berry fronting a 70s punk band. “Feed the Babies” reminds young men and women of baby-makin’ age that their responsibilities go beyond the basics – not just feeding and schooling, but, “Gotta teach the babies to love.” And “The Guitar Man”, oddly enough, has the least amount of guitar on the album – it’s straight-up R&B, with the singer reminding his partner that all his time on the road has been worth it: “Yeah, baby it’s candlelight by choice now/Look how far we made it.” Notice the “we” – they’ve done it together.

The other knockout on This Land is “Pearl Cadillac”. The song finds Clark square in mid-80s Prince territory, penning an ode to the strong, independent women in his life – could be his wife, could be his mother – and hoping to do his best by them: “You say I owe you nothin’/If I could, I’d give you the world.” And, as scorching as Clark’s guitar work is on the track, it’s that falsetto that once again brings it home. The Guitar Man has absolutely become a singer.

Clark produced This Land with Jacob Sciba, with additional production from Mike Elizondo and Joseph Angel. Sheila E. appears on several tracks, and her presence absolutely influences the Paisley Park feel on the album. Other musicians include Elizondo (bass), Brannen Temple (drums), Jon Beas (keyboards), J.J. Johnson (drums), Kevon Harrold (horns), Doyle Bramhall II (oud), Alex Peterson (bass), and additional vocals from Sciba, Joseph Holguin, Gaston Jouany, Gabe Burch, Branko Presley, Mikayla Mundy, Lazaro Zarate, Katelyn O’Neal, Pam Adams, and Scooter Weintraub.

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