My first exposure to Gary Clark Jr., the Texas-born guitarist — don’t call him a blues guitarist, that sells him short — was at maybe the least congruous opening slot you’d imagine for a guy blending 50 years of guitar music into his own stew: Clark Jr. was opening on the Milwaukee stop of the Outkast reunion tour in 2014. Clark had the unenviable position of playing the searing blues-tinged songs from 2012’s Blak and Blu to a crowd that waited almost 15 years to hear “Hey Ya” live. At the time, it seemed like Clark was being forced off a plank into unknown waters, but in some ways it laid the groundwork for 2015’s The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, and especially this week’s This Land, albums that are genreless in their breadth. Clark broke through and got signed to a major label on the premise that he was going to be the new Albert King or Buddy Guy, a transformative guitarist who would bring blues somewhere new. But Clark has bigger ideas; he doesn’t want to be pinned down as just a blues artist, and doesn’t want to carry all the baggage that comes with that designation. This Land is the culmination of his self-imposed boundary pushing; it’s Clark’s best album, a Prince album filtered through Texas prairies, the Stax songbook and Dirty South rap.
This Land opens with its searing title track, a song written after Clark was confronted by a white neighbor who couldn’t believe that a black man could own the substantial ranch Clark had just moved to outside Austin. “This Land” is a scorching protest song that in micro is about Clark declaring the land he lives on as his, but in the macro, is about black Americans asserting their right to be here. “The home of the brave doesn’t mean the same thing for everybody — until it does, maybe we shouldn’t acknowledge it,” Clark told Rolling Stone. “This Land” culminates in multiple fret fireworks from Clark, but for the first time in his catalog, they’re not the real star of the song; it’s the best song Clark has ever written as his songwriting has caught up to his prodigious guitar work.
“This Land” is the fiercest song on an album that goes from torch songs (“I Got My Eyes On You (Locked & Loaded)”), to funky stompers (“I Walk Alone”), to swampy Muscle Shoals workouts (“Low Down Rolling Stone”). Clark even makes detours into reggae (“Feelin’ Like A Million”), and New Orleans soul (“Feed The Babies”), Motown swing (“When I’m Gone”) and Purple Rain balladry (“Pearl Cadillac”). Clark is still probably the best guitarist walking this rock right now, but what this album makes clear is that he knows that that fact does him no favors in the long run. Making an album as audacious as this is harder to pull off than being the guy that gets the call from TV producers every time a classic rock guitarist dies or has an anniversary. This Land is the kind of rock album that is supposed to be “dead,” that no one is making anymore. Ignore it at your own peril.