On his 2012 major label debut, Gary Clark Jr. was hungry for all the music he could get his hands on. He rose up out of Austin as a certified bluesman and killer guitar player, sure, but Blak and Blu also pulled funk, soul, and molten garage rock under its wide roof. What that album lacked in cohesion it made up for in spirit and a whole pile of hot licks. Three years later, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim smooths out some of that wayward fire, as Clark uses the album to comb through states of danger, frustration, and especially love.
Last year, Clark followed up Blak and Blu with a mixtape version of the record assisted by Mississippi rapper Big K.R.I.T., and now he kicks off Sonny Boy Slim with a hip-hop streak. “Yeah, hey!” he calls out on opener “Healing” over an old-school beat, drawing threads of his signature warm guitar tone up to meet his voice. “This music is my healing,” he sings at the chorus, backed up by a gospel-style choir. “God knows I need some healing.”
Though often an intensely personal form, blues has historically intermingled with politics, shading out the area where the political sphere encroaches upon the individual. On “Hold On”, Clark nods in that direction, tracing the emotional fatigue caused by the overlapping stressors of capitalism and racism, though he never gets specific enough to situate the song within a particular time or movement. “Another mother crying on TV because her boy didn’t make it,” he sings, and he could be describing CNN today or broadcast news 40 years ago. The image comes to us instantly either way. “Hold on, we’re gonna make it,” Clark reassures, echoing the sentiment of Kenrick Lamar’s newly minted protest song “Alright”, if not its specificity.
Beyond politics, suffering, and survival, Clark’s got love on his mind, both the put-together, church-going kind (as on the organ-laced “Our Love”) and the kind that gets you stumbling home full of booze and yearning (the nervous, frayed “Can’t Sleep”). With lively command of the fretboard, he expresses the pangs of both rejection and devotion with aplomb. His desire comes to life on an even greater scale with “Stay”, a gaping rock number reminiscent of TV on the Radio with its clouds of distortion and curls of falsetto. Clark wields his guitar like a second voice, tapping out leads with an organic warmth.
In the end, Clark finds what he’s looking for. Dreamy closer “Down to Ride” sees him cruising down the highway with a girl in the passenger seat, the chaos and pain of the world locked outside the car. The lazy synths and quick, clean riffing make the track almost sound like a Blood Orange cut, a mode Clark pulls off convincingly, if with less irony than Dev Hynes himself. With a new dose of narrative flow, his second record keeps tighter boundaries than his first. It’s less adventurous but more driven, with sharper eyes on the road. The Story of Sonny Boy Slim wraps like an old Western: Wherever Clark’s been going, he gets there.
Essential Tracks: “Hold On”, “Stay”, and “Down to Ride”