It's difficult deciding whether it's Eric Clapton who is disappointing in his new album "Slowhand" (RSO Records, RS - 1 - 3030) or whether I simply expected too much.

Ever since Clapton's first solo album, I've been waiting for the same stinging, gut-wrenching instrumental barrage that made his work with Cream and Derek and the Dominoes legendary. Granted, "I Shot the Sheriff" and "Let It Flow" were great tunes, and Clapton always projected a totally - in - control aura that implied he'd turn it on at any moment.

He never has.

Now comes "Slowhand," obviously titled for the nickname that has accompanied him throughout a meteoric rise, fall and then rise again. Clapton got his chops playing with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and the Yardbirds but he never could match the blur of Jimmy Page or Jeff Beck.

Thus, he refined his technique and substituted taste and vitality for sheer speed. Clapton plays guitar the way Count Basie plays piano: the less - is - best philosophy that gives one note more clout than a string of unnecessary but flashy runs (just listen to the closing solo in "White Room").

"Slowhand" follows in the mold set by"461 Ocean Boulevard" (RSO Records, RS - 1 - 3023). It's mellow and tuneful but lacks the fire of the early days. What's even more frustrating is that Clapton opens the record with a burning version of J. J. Cale's "Cocaine" and hopes are raised that, finally, the energy is back.

No dice.

The rest of side one lays back and, though Clapton is still a premiere player and Glyn Johns still a premiere producer, there's nothing to get excited about - just things to get relaxed about.

"Lay Down Sally" sounds like something Elvis could have done in concert while Clapton and Yvonne Elliman engage in a Kris and Rita - type dialogue on "We're All the Way." "Wonderful Tonight" works well as a ballad but Clapton's voice is not suited to carrying a heavy melody.

Side two starts strongly as Clapton leans into "The Core" but the composition is overextended and doesn't sustain its initial promise. John Martyn's "May You Never" becomes a musical equivalent of happy talk and the instrumental "Peaches and Diesel" perfectly showcases Clapton's ear for style but doesn't rise above its self - inflicted restraints.

Now, all this rhetoric might simply be a way of covering up the fact that we're all older and Eric Clapton is just not doing what he used to do. That's fair enough -- but I still harbor the feeling that one day he may cut loose.

Maybe next album.