Weekly 40-Watt #12: Gary Clark, Jr.'s 'This Land'

Weekly 40-Watt is a feature where I listen to an album or band, new or old, for the first time and jot down some notes on it.

In the past two years, I’ve visited two cities for the first time during separate bachelor parties. One was Austin in early fall 2017. The other was Nashville in late summer 2018.

Different vibes in both cities, but each has their own type of energy when it comes to music. To my own surprise, I found that I preferred Nashville’s vibe — a place where any given bar could feature a country-blues-rockabilly trio or quartet playing covers song from any given genre. It’s a higher power that blesses you with an alt-country adaptation of Fall Out Boy’s “Sugar, We’re Going Down” when you’re six or eight or twelve beers deep.

But it was in Austin where I was encouraged to check out Gary Clark Jr.’s live albums by a friend. The blues-rock genre-bender lives outside of Austin — it’s the location of his new album’s opening track, which finds Clark combatting open racism loudly and righteously — and he’s well known for a fiery stage presence.

I was really interested in both Gary Clark Jr. Live and Live North America 2016, but I found it difficult to keep my attention focused on Clark’s studio albums — both Blak and Blu and The Story of Sonny Boy Slim just kind of sat there for me. I tried listening on road trips, occasions I thought perfect for Clark’s vibe, but no dice.

So it’s with that context that I’d say This Land is Gary Clark Jr.’s best studio output. It’s his most well-rounded effort and the first that seems open to capturing the energy of his live show. I don’t think it’s a mistake that Clark alternated releases for each of the last several years, switching between studio albums and live ones. With This Land, Clark strikes a crucial balance for a studio record — it’s a melting pot of genres, as we’d expect from him, but there’s an openness to the space of the album that you usually only get on stage. When Clark shreds on This Land, it could just as easily be at a small club as it could be on the biggest stage at Austin City Limits.

This is a really special sonic achievement for an album that blends so many genres. There’s a home here for blues, rock, reggae, pop and more. There’s space for political lyricism, and Clark’s more regular blues storytelling too. The opening “This Land” sticks with you, and you’ll know why after the first chorus if you’ve been listening along with Clark so far. “What About Us” is an equally memorable charge before the album sort of tapers off into lyricism that’s a bit less overt. It’s great to hear Clark present those topics on a new album, though — he’s an influential and (I hope) easy-to-listen-to influence for fans of many genres.

Both “I Got My Eyes On You” and “I Walk Alone” shine with Clark’s falsetto, poppier numbers that at times live in an R&B space. Then the album takes a curve with the reggae influences on “Feelin’ Like A Million,” a song that veers into more straightforward rock by its end. It leads into the decidedly rocking “Gotta Get Into Something,” which feels like Clark’s imitation of a Ramones track. Everything from the opening riff to the screaming chorus feels like a Ramones rip in a great way.

This album is mostly great, but it’s a bit too long — for a record with such great energy, I really wish its length would have been cut down. If I had to reduce the tracklist, I know I’d keep the soulful “Pearl Cadillac” and the terrifically well-rounded “The Guitar Man.” These are highlights in a career of highlights for Clark, whose next album will have otherworldly expectations. His ability to fuse genres coupled with his innate guitar-playing prowess and his newly found studio energy make for a combination that’s really impossible to ignore.

Listening to Gary Clark Jr.’s music simultaneously feels like you’ve unearthed something very old and like you’ve discovered something extremely new and fresh that no one else has heard yet. It’s a purely exciting feeling.