Richard Clapton – Best Years 1974-2014

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With a career spanning more than four decades, Richard Clapton is one of Australia’s most respected singer-songwriters, who has more classic songs under his belt than any artist has a right to, and whose music has over the years successfully woven itself into the very fabric of Australian culture. For as certain as you’ll see a posse of young specimens in a country pub late at night bonding over Cold Chisel’s “Flame Trees”, there’s an equal chance that you’ll get a handful of individuals in another watering hole who will be just as happy to hear “Deep Water” on the jukebox.

When it comes to describing Clapton the word consistent is an understatement. With the exception of Don Walker, he is without a doubt one of the most reflective and thoughtful of lyricists I have ever heard, whose songs have the power to put their hand on your shoulder, make you stop, and think about life for a little while, namely where you’ve been and where you’re going. Who has not had their weary mind eased by the song “Capricorn Dancer”, where “gypsies ride through wonderland… Underneath a thousand miles of sky”, while the “waves come tumbling down”? Or not stood on the shore, looking out across the ocean, and felt that they were “born in the wrong time”, as in “Blue Bay Blues”, a song that aches with melancholic introspection. “Deep Water” is another soul searching number, concerned with looking back with little regard for what the future may hold, questioning whether all those “Sunday drivers… cruising round” will ever find “peace of mind”. Obviously one doesn’t need to be a psychologist to understand that there’s a common thread which ties all these songs, whose overarching theme is about as subtle as a Gothic cathedral. Because Clapton is not just your clever, above average songsmith; he’s also a philosopher, popular music’s very own Montaigne, building an Everyman’s library of tunes of which all people, whether rich or poor can relate to, provided one has the empathy and intelligence. Whether it’s the paean to past glories of “Goodbye Tiger”, or the yearning for lost love in “Prussian Blue”, Clapton never cuts the filament which fills his mind. “Down in the Lucky Country” has a delicious irony to it that was seemingly lost on the majority of the people who bought it back in the day, who no doubt took it as nothing more than a catchy pop tune written about the land down under, rather than as an intelligent observation on all the suffering and forgotten sections of society who remain too marginalised to enjoy the fruits of a predominately prosperous nation.

By the 1980’s Clapton had updated his sound, but not his perception nor scrutiny of the world around him. On “Get Back to the Shelter” he instructs us on the importance to “slow down for a while”, pause on “the endless sky”, because underneath we’re all “losing time”. Likewise on “The Best Years of Our Lives”, arguably one of his finest compositions (along with  the aforementioned “Goodbye Tiger) and one which sees him standing on Oxford Street, where the “ghosts are howling”, longing for “better days”, all the while wishing that “time had stopped ten years ago”. In other words, one can hold on to the spoke, but the wheel keeps on turning. “I Am An Island” is unique in that it has contributions by Jim Barnes and Ian Moss (backing vocals and guitar respectively), and is one of the rockiest recordings Clapton had yet made when compared to his previous outings. And the quality kept on coming, from the radio friendly “Trust Somebody”, the truth-seeking “Glory Road”, to the tender “Angelou”. So many songs, so many stories, far too many to analyse here, and all of them imbued with Richard’s unique eye of perception on the human condition, a form of pop-rock psychology if you will, like Australia’s very own On the Beach/Tonight’s the Night era Neil Young, in so far that Clapton was, and remains, one of this country’s most emotional and cynical of cultural observers, who is always honest and uncompromising to the last, which is precisely what this 3cd 40th anniversary collection succeeds in proving. Because the deeper you dig, the more precious gems you will find.

Apart from every track being newly remastered, as an added bonus, this excellent anthology also boasts a live DVD which captures Clapton in his prime. Filmed in 1988, and originally broadcast on television the following year (I remember watching), it is a must see, where naturally he performs some his best known material along with a few more obscure numbers, and therefore serves as an essential document of the time in which it was recorded. A VHS release was originally made, but it’s preservation on DVD here is long overdue, and makes for a wonderful gift for all his fans, and is reason enough for owning.