The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim

Gary Clark Jr.

Warner Brothers, 2015

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg



This is what albums are for; this why they still matter (and always will).

A voice, clear and distinct, with a story, vivid and textured, in the hands of an artist of tremendous skill, employing the tools and traditions that made him want to make music in the first place, but shaping them into something fresh and distinctly his own—a vision, a world, for you, the listener, to inhabit.

In the past, it’s sometimes seemed like Gary Clark Jr. was trying to be all of his influences at once. He’d veer from track to track between soloing with Hendrix-like abandon and crooning like Smokey Robinson, spouting urban street poetry like Gil Scott-Heron or delivering stinging blues licks like Albert King. For all the musical heights he scaled on albums like Blak And Blu—one of the best albums of 2012, no question about it—if you wanted to criticize anything, you might have said that, as a songwriter/arranger, he could sometimes seem a little unfocused. Not this time. The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim is a cohesive musical statement constructed around sturdy beams of classic soul and deep blues, whose rock, folk and gospel influences function as accents rather than competing visions.  

Having announced his narrative ambitions with this album’s title, Clark sets the tone immediately with a urban soundscape featuring the ancient, world-weary voice of Christopher Copeland singing an old African-American spiritual, cross-cutting into the ringing deep-blues opening of “The Healing,” a sort of overture-slash-topic sentence for the album. “This music is my healing,” sings Clark, and “Lord knows we need some healing, yeah / ’Cause when this world upsets me / This music sets me free.” Here are the primal roots of blues, gospel, and rock and roll, resurrected and reinvigorated.

Next up, “Grinder” gets down to business with a heavy blues groove as Clark sings about the very pain that music heals, the Sisyphean struggle to support a family that ends when Sonny’s father bolts (”Seems like everyone’s talking 'bout money / So, I’ve got to get me some / My baby’s crying / So now my baby’s crying / We always fighting for money / But, girl, I ain’t got the time”). The song finishes with a banshee wail of guitar feedback, the agonized cry of a child as his father walks away.

“Star” opens with ominous, guitar-generated white noise before resolving into a deep soul-funk groove, with Clark singing in a gorgeous falsetto, relaying affirmations (“Go on and shine / I want you to shine”) such as might be passed down from a loving mother to her son. Like most great soul tunes, it’s anchored by a loping, elastic bass line that’s right out of Philly 1973.

“Our Love” is an epic song of love and devotion, all gospel-blues church organ and delicate falsetto over a stately rhythm, and full of the real-life push and pull of falling in love. First he asserts “You are my lady / I am your man / Some call it crazy / They just didn’t understand….” And then you realize this is half true and half bluster, as he circles back and pleads: “Come on, girl / Let me be your man / Keep it together, babe / They don't have to understand / Our love.” Somewhere, Marvin Gaye is smiling.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Here and throughout, Clark embellishes what is a true solo album—he plays two guitars, bass and drums himself on the majority of these tracks—with the Hard Proof Horns, organ and piano from Lewis Stephens, and a soaring background vocal chorus comprised of sisters Shawn and Savannah Clark.

“Church” opens in country-folk-blues mode with acoustic guitar, tambourine, harmonica and a distinct Woody Guthrie vibe, at least until the gospel choir comes in. As the song develops, it becomes clear Sonny is following in his father’s footsteps, foundering under the weight of his responsibilities and battling despair. “I worked / Long hours / Now I'm drunk / And I'm stoned / I'm all alone / Miles from home / Lord, my Lord / I need your helpin' hand.” It’s a traditional spiritual transposed into a modern urban setting, a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, asking for help.

A second wind arrives with “Hold On.” Over a mid-tempo funk beat, using stinging guitar breaks as exclamation points, Clark essays the struggle of a generation: “What am I gonna tell my babies, when / They don't understand / My pressure, my struggle, my demands, yeah / Back then, I didn't understand when my pops came home saying / That he couldn't take it, but /
It's hard to be a good man knowing that a man's plan / Is to take what you making.” Still, he persists, asserting “Hold on, we’re going to make it.” 

A new form of trouble arrives with “Cold-Blooded,” as a wandering eye earns Sonny a stalker. On the bridge, Clark matches his own falsetto with ringing guitar licks in spectacular precision, before the horn section carries the song back to its soul roots. “Wings” finds Sonny gaining success but no peace, an echoey meditation that feels at times like half-speed hip-hop played with blues instrumentation. He’s on top of the world when the brief interlude “BYOB” sets him up for a fall; you know the minute he sings “I got money in my pocket / I got a drink in my hand / I feel like nothing can stop me” that something bad is about to happen. Right on cue, he meets “the girl with trouble in her eyes” in the densely funky, very catchy “Can’t Sleep.” He’s in trouble and he knows it: “I gotta leave you alone but I can’t / And I can’t go home.”

“Stay” is the climax of the album, a thundery, blustery, at times rather Zeppelin-esque blues-rock number, deliberate in tempo but cinemascope-huge in sound. “Every time I see you it feels like the first time / Every time I leave you, I lose my mind” declares Clark/Sonny, his pleas ever more fervent until, by the fourth minute, the song begins to feel like it’s losing its center and flying apart.

After that crescendo, “Shake” finds Clark in full-on party-boogie mode, a deceptively upbeat tune masking a lyric that could be read as either celebratory or desperate: “Don’t stop, baby, shake it loose / Don’t stop ’til you lose your blues... Don’t stop ’til the break of dawn / You know I ain’t comin’ home.” The frantic dance continues until the track exhausts itself.

Closer “Down To Ride” opens with a languid yet foreboding synth-bass-drums theme as Clark comes in with a wordless falsetto that gradually resolves into a desperate plea: “Baby I need your love, baby I want your love.” As this intense neo-soul number builds, Sonny’s choice becomes clear, and his fate sealed, as he follows in his father’s footsteps: “Now I won’t be alone / ’Cause I got a girl who’s down to ride with me / Damn she looks good on that passenger side with me / No more time wasted thinkin’ ’bout the past / With just that rearview, got my foot on the gas.” The last two and a half minutes of this eight-minute track are an extended outro, the synth and rhythm section easing off to form a spacey backdrop as Clark coaxes a series of cries and moans from his guitar, a sort of requiem for what’s been lost, again.

Clark’s penchant for guitar pyrotechnics pops up in places, but is used more strategically here than on Blak And Blu; this time around he’s more focused on telling a story than making his bones as a guitar slinger. That and much of the above is really just details, though. The headline here is that the guy who was already a shining star of the modern scene has now taken it to the next level. The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim has everything a listener could ask for: emotion, integrity, vivid storytelling, and expert musicianship. If a better album has come out in 2015, I haven’t heard it yet.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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