Give Eric Clapton kudos for honesty: He comes right out and says he's bushed on "So Tired," the opening track of his latest disc, "Back Home." Too bad he spends the rest of the record convincing listeners that he's telling the truth.
The legendary guitarist's new collection sounds like an equal and opposite reaction to the Cream reunion shows at Royal Albert Hall in London in May. Those fabulously received gigs had Clapton, after a 35-year separation, playing beside Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, the guys who were with him during the hardest rocking phase of his career.
"Back Home" finds Clapton, who turned 60 this year, in his rocking-chair phase. His fretwork during the Cream commemoration reminded fans of the legend of graffiti artists tagging parts of 1960s London with the slogan "Clapton Is God." If his generally lackluster playing and singing on "Back Home" get the folks back home to scribble anything, it'll be along the lines of "E.C. Is Older Than God."
There are also a few whiffs here of marketing deviousness -- or perhaps just creative exhaustion. The first single from the record, for example, is called "Revolution," but it's not the Beatles nugget. Instead, it's one of five glossy new songs Clapton wrote with Simon Climie, a former U.K. pop singer and songwriter who has glommed onto Slowhand late in life. Before he co-produced Clapton's equally tedious 2001 disc, "Reptile," Climie's credits included writing tunes for George Michael and Frida, after she left Abba.
Advance copies of "Back Home" also contain a track titled "Piece of My Heart," but that song has nothing to do with the chunk of classic rock whose title Janis Joplin etched into the consciousness of Clapton's target demographic. (According to Clapton's Web site, the cut is now being called "Heaven.") At least he didn't name the album "Sgt. Pepper."
He covers "Love Comes to Everyone," a piece of easy-listening pop that George Harrison put on an eponymous solo record in 1979 -- Clapton was listed in that album's credits as playing on the track. But this Harrison-Clapton collaboration won't make anybody forget alliances such as "Badge," a Harrison song that Cream recorded.
There's also "I'm Going Left," a political tune written by Stevie Wonder in the early 1970s that includes what seems like a Cold War slam at the Soviet Union: "There's a land over there / Where all are given an even share / What you get is so small / It's like never having nothing at all." But any message gets overwhelmed by the tedium of a polished arrangement that seems borrowed from Christian rock.
There's some evidence here that Clapton's picking is as fleet and precise as ever: When he wails away during an otherwise lazy cover of Vince Gill's "One Day," one gets the sense there's not a lick he still hasn't got licked. There are also a few great moments on "Lost and Found," which Clapton wrote with Doyle Bramhall II, son of former Stevie Ray Vaughan sidekick Doyle Bramhall. Clapton and Bramhall II's dueling guitars make a sound enough like "Spoonful" to make you want to dig out Clapton's old blues works.
Those snippets of wizardry, however, just make the overall apathy of "Back Home" more maddening. Perhaps, as the opening track suggests, Clapton just needs a good nap. A few listens to this record could get that slumber party started.