Slow Hand proves he still has what it takes and hadn’t turned his back on the blues entirely
Journeyman was seen as something of a comeback for Eric Clapton, and a return to form. An opinion not surprising considering his previous two efforts, Behind The Sun (1984) and August (1986), both of which were extremely successful, commercially speaking, yet derided by many critics as little more than glossy filler, no doubt thanks to Phil Collins, who acted as main producer. However by 1989, Clapton felt determined that his next album would be different, deciding to replace Collins as producer with Russ Titelman. Next he enlisted the help of George Harrison, Robert Cray, Daryl Hall, Chaka Khan, the Womacks, along with Jim Keltner and Phil Collins (on drums), thus ensuring that if anything, Journeyman would be a far less plastic statement than its predecessors.
The opening track “Pretending” is a professionally played blues-rocker, with a riff reminiscent of Freddie King’s “Goin’ Down” (not the first time Eric had plagiarised another guitarist’s ideas). And though despite its impeccable virtues, the song, like the album itself, still has a strong ‘80s electronic sound to it. “Anything For Your Love” follows suit; all shallow shiny production, where anything that might resemble a real instrument has been sterilised into oblivion. Clapton had for years been aware of the popularity of “Layla”, the one song that he just couldn’t shake off, no matter how hard he tried. Finally he relented, and “Bad Love” was the result. Beginning with a main riff that leads into the first verse, the chorus is little more than a lazy retread of the chorus to “Layla” itself, although at least Clapton puts in an impressive solo, playing some of his finest guitar in years.
“Running On Faith” is a throwback to his ‘70s period, and the sort of laconic bluesy ballad Clapton was always so comfortable in performing. Ray Charles’ “Hard Times” gets a sincere rendering, as if Clapton actually sounds like he means it, instead of merely phoning it in from around the corner. Here Eric’s voice and guitar are superb, as they also are on a rollicking version of “Hound Dog,” which closes out side one.
“No Alibis” has some fine playing, though belongs to the same generic pop genus of his earlier 80’s records. “Run So Far,” featuring Harrison, is just plain forgettable, even if George’s slide is exquisite, while on “Old Love” Clapton reflects over his failed marriage with Patti Boyd, who had recently left him. If one puts aside the lyrical self-pity (“It makes me so angry/To know that the flame still burns”), both Clapton and Cray put in an impressive series of stylishly sentimental guitar solos. In complete contrast is “Breaking Point,” a tune that could well have been written by Ric Ocasek, followed by the Womacks’ “Lead Me On,” another trite ‘80s concoction, and one that is indistinguishable from any of his slick movie soundtracks to boot.
Thankfully, side two ends with a rendition of Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me,” a back-to-basics no frills blues workout, complemented by a guitar duel between Clapton and Cray, and a perfect way to end, what is overall, an imperfect album.
Maybe the release of the 4cd boxed set Crossroads in 1988 propelled Clapton to re-evaluate his legacy and future course. Whatever the reason, Journeyman was certainly a step in the right direction for an artist who had come to rely too much on the advice of others (Warner Brothers, Phil Collins et al). And even if the odd misstep prevents it from being an absolute classic, older fans must have rejoiced at hearing slow hand reaching back to his roots, and doing what he does best – namely sing and play the blues.