THE PAST 10 years of Eric Clapton's career are often seen as an era of retrenchment, a willful retreat from the personal, musical and cultural excesses of the '60s. By the end of that decade, Clapton had obviously wearied of his near deification as guitar hero of the Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers and Cream. In one tumultuous period in the early '70s, he went through membership in the ill-fated Blind Faith, a tormented love affair with George Harrison's wife, Patti, the unsurpassable triumph of "Layla," the death of close friend Duane Allman, a bout with heroin addiction and conversion to born-again Christianity.

Clapton has recorded a new album, "Money and Cigarettes" (Warner Bros. 23773-1), that is probably his best since 1974's "461 Ocean Boulevard." Southern rhythm and blues this sublime is the result of the constantly evolving and maturing relationship between Clapton and his lifelong love, the blues. It is from the corpus of great blues that Clapton has always rung his truth, found his refuge and strength. His musical odyssey is perhaps the most fascinating and creatively productive of any white blues man ever.

Pumped up by the rhythms of two soul greats, Roger Hawkins and Duck Dunn, and embellished by the sinuous guitar interplay among Clapton, Ry Cooder and Albert Lee, "Money and Cigarettes" has a full-bodied and assertive sound. "Pretty Girl" and "Man in Love," both romances with a spiritual quality, make it clear that Clapton still eschews the intense, sweaty blues of his youth in favor of a more personal meditational approach. Yet these songs, and especially the album's many blues rockers like "Man Overboard," are still a step removed from the languid blues and laidback posture of much of Clapton's '70s work. The sleepiest he gets here is Sleepy John Estes' "Everybody Oughta Make a Change," a piece of philosophy Clapton is obviously comfortable with as he delivers each word as confidently and as casually as his low-key voice allows.

There is a consistency of sound and spirit on "Money and Cigarettes" that sets it apart from recent Clapton albums that only seemed to capture a moment of greatness or a slice of his talent. The album's most inspiration moment is "Ain't Going Down," a captivating and insistent rocker featuring some brilliant guitar punctuation from Clapton; it's the most assertive testimony of his status as a survivor. Where Clapton finally seems to be going is deeper into the blues, past the quick thrills of piercing guitars pushed to the limits, toward that place where the blues rock sure and steady and never flinch from the truth. THE FACT THAT he plays guitar in Eric Clapton's band tells you that Albert Lee is a guitarist's guitarist. His fluid country and blues picking has appeared on albums by Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash. Not surprisingly, with Crowell producing his new release, "Albert Lee". (Polydor PD-1-6358), Lee has developed a sound similar to the sophisticated country rock of Crowell and Cash. Fortunately Lee doesn't let his more incendiary rockabilly licks go to waste either, as he turns in a number of streamlined, '50s-based rockers that resemble the work of fellow British guitar ace Dave Edmunds.

Much like a good Edmunds album, "Albert Lee" is full of wonderfully modern rock-'n'-roll songs that meld the '50s ethos of guitars, girls and cars with the more complex emotional realities of the '80s. Also like Edmunds, Lee has a thin but pleasing voice that is effective simply because of its unaffected sincerity. If this album has a single highlight, it is Lee's rendition of John Hiatt's witty "Pink Bedroom," a herky-jerky tune that distills the consumerism of the affluent teen-age girl in some devastating little couplets:

"She got the lip gloss/She got the short shorts/She-got the records/They're all imports."

Lee also turns in an impressive rendition of "On the Boulevard", a haunting ballad by Hank De Vito, one of the finest country-rock songwriters around. Although most of the songs are contemporary, Lee digs back for a hilariously insolent version of "Real Wild Child," a 1958 rockabilly novelty by Ivan. He also turns in a stately, romantic cover of the Everly Brothers' "So Sad." Albert Lee may not be the most original rocker around, but much like the vastly underrated Rick Nelson, he conveys his rock 'n' roll earnestly and without the phony fervor of so many modern rockabillies. And if Rick Nelson had James Burton on guitar, Albert Lee has Albert Lee.

Eric Clapton, Albert Lee and Ry Cooder all perform at the Capital Centre tomorrow night.