On the title track of “This Land,” Gary Clark Jr. is staking his claim to a literal place on the map, settling in and declaring: “I told you there goes the neighborhood… This is mine now, legit.” It’s a song with real-life roots in how Clark and his family have traded up in turf in his native Texas and been met with some suspicious glances upon move-in. And if it sounds like he’s had some practice in defiantly ignoring expectations about where he ought to live, well, that’s something he’s been doing musically his whole life. He’s a rock-and-soul omnivore who can survey the entire landscape of American music — not just the blues with which he’s so often associated, but reggae, punk, R&B and hip-hop, too — and say: This land was made for you and me.
He owns it all on This Land, his third studio album for Warner Bros. Records, which is sure to be seen as a breakthrough in establishing just how much stylistic variation Clark has at his command. There are plenty of the guitar-hero sounds that have already established him as a headliner, with tunes that reiterate that Cream influences always rise to the top, from a guy who’s long since come to be considered by Clapton as a friend and contemporary, not just acolyte. But if a lot of fans would consider Clark the closest thing we have to a modern Hendrix, what comes through implicitly in This Land is the sense of just how much Jimi loved and borrowed from Curtis Mayfield. You can think of Clark as one of the last of the real rock gods, along with fellow master singer/guitarists like Jack White, John Mayer, or the late, great Prince and the new album certainly won’t do anything to diminish that perception. But This Land is also a great soul record — one in which it’s easy to hear the lineage that connects Muddy Waters and Childish Gambino, with distinct nods to Marvin Gaye somewhere in the middle.
You’ll hear strains of Gaye not just in Clark using his falsetto more than he ever has before. It’s in the mixture of social consciousness and sensuality that was a matter of course for records like “What’s Goin’ On”… not to mention “Sign O’ the Times.” Obviously you hear the awareness of what’s goin’ on in the song This Land itself, in which Clark finds himself “paranoid and pissed off” among well-heeled neighbors who “think I’m up to something” just because his family doesn’t fit the local demographics. The attention to the greater good also informs “What About Us,” which has Clark announces that “the young bloods are taking over” — something he says to a fictional figure who recurs in several songs, “Mr. Williams,” a guy who could be a past-his-prime neighborhood boss… or, who knows, a stand-in for some bigger political figure who also has to go. “Feed the Babies” brings in the brass to augment a call for understanding that’s a pleading, purposeful antidote to the raw nerves of the title song.
Yet Clark also uses the album to get more personal than he ever has on record before, often assessing the tough balance between career and family. “Pearl Cadillac” is a payback to a mother’s devotion. He’s the parent in “When I’m Gone,” preparing a child for yet another trip away on the road, a topic he also takes up with a significant other in “Guitar Man,” where he’s weighing the “stamps in my blue book” and the fellowship of the road against the fear of a toll taken by time apart at home.
But if it’s the ballsy tropes of rock, blues and R&B that you’d like a fresh spin on, This Land hardly foregoes the twin towers of swagger and regret. “Friday night and I just got paid/I’m out looking for some trouble,” he sings in “Feel Like a Million,” a number that starts out as Peter Tosh and ends up somewhere closer to an arena-rock anthem. He’s found that trouble and then some in “Don’t Wait Til Tomorrow,” a balladic plea to the woman at home to forgive dalliances, with the knowledge that she may exact some what’s-good-for-the-goose revenge. “Low Down Rolling Stone” is an affair-ending lament from a wayward soul who’s discovered “darkness is my comfort zone.” But there’s no sorrow — yet – in a pair of kick-ass “got to” songs. “Got to Get Up” brings on the trumpet as Clark repeats “Kill ‘em all!” like the rock mantra it is, and “Gotta Get Into Something” finds him reaching to pure Chuck Berry territory… or maybe not so pure, since there’s something positively Ramones-y in his take on furious proto-punk rock and roll.
It may sound diffuse as an album, but it all holds together as part of a singular vision from Clark and his co-producer, Jacob Sciba, a longtime Austin friend and chief engineer at Arlyn Studios where most of This Land was laid down. Clark has had interest from some