Since the release of his first major studio album in 2012, Blak and Blu, Gary Clark Jr. has made a name for himself as a genre-bending blues guitarist. After recent performances with legends Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones, it would seem Clark has already positioned himself to be one of the great 21st century guitarists. The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, released Friday, reminds listeners that when Clark puts down his axe, he can produce a thought-provoking album that highlights his versatility.
For Sonny Boy Slim, Clark decided to hole up in Austin’s Arlyn Studios, avoiding input from an outside producer and releasing a work that is purely his vision. He combines elements of R&B and psychedelic and allows his voice and other instruments to drive each track, using his guitar to complement rather than dominate his arrangements.
With the album’s opening track, “The Healing,” Clark reminds himself and his listeners that music can soothe a troubled soul. The lyrics, “When the world upsets me/this music sets me free” float above a simple guitar and piano progression, allowing listeners to focus on the song’s message.
“Grinder,” the album’s second track, is one of few times that Clark returns to the heavy guitar sound he is generally known for. With a distorted guitar accented with a classic wah-wah pedal, fans will be pleased to hear that Clark hasn’t lost his chops, although the track feels out of place. The song comes off as a strained effort to satisfy guitar enthusiasts.
Throughout the album, Clark incorporates psychedelic sounds reminiscent of Hendrix’s recording innovations on Electric Ladyland, producing the project’s best moments. “Star” opens with a dissonant tumbling before transitioning to a calm and cool bass line that serves as a foundation for Clark’s falsetto.
Themes of love and loss dominate the narrative structure of the album. “Our Love” alludes to a 1970s prom night that makes heavy use of the studio’s organ while proclaiming sweetly “You are my lady/I am your man.” Three songs later, Clark expresses resentment for that same lady in “Cold Blooded,” deciding “I will shoot her down.”
The last track “Down to Ride” is Clark’s most self-serving and his best on the album. The nearly eight-minute song features an ’80s synth and atmospheric sounds that invite the listener to sit back and groove while taking a late evening drive through the city.
The album as a whole is Clark’s contribution to the recent soul revival that has been successful for artists such as The Alabama Shakes and D’Angelo. This most recent work indicates his understanding of narrative structure has improved, pairing nicely with his soulful approach.
Restraint was Clark’s greatest recording tool and the final result is a clean and mature sound. He succeeded in detaching from the nationwide hype train that proclaimed him blues guitar’s chosen prodigy, producing an album that features a contemporary take on R&B, funk and soul.
The Story of Sonny Boy Slim