A weepy ballad by Cecil and Linda Womack on a Clapton record? Has our guitar hero gone Hallmark on us? And does he still play the blues? The answers are: yes, only slightly, and unequivocally "you bet!" Despite some major concessions to Top 40 commercialism, this is still Clapton's strongest work of the decade.
The Womack and Womack tune, "Lead Me On" (with Cecil and Linda on guitar and vocals), is a most forceful message to E.C.'s under-30 fans that he is as serious about being a balladeer as he is about his reign as a six-string blues-rock virtuoso. Richard Tee's warm electric piano and Clapton's gentle lead converge nicely, while Arif Mardin's string arrangement runs in and out of the song and doesn't drown out the other musicians.
But if you want sentimentality, you'll listen to Streisand, right? Rest easy, Clapton knows the blues and still generously doles out those crackling high notes and fluid runs. Fellow guitarist Robert Cray sits in on four cuts, and it's a pleasure to hear the two not trying to outduel each other. Instead of trying to burn the place down (which they could do anytime), Clapton and Cray alternately play on top of and then underneath one another in complementary fashion. Another old friend, George Harrison, donated "Run So Far," though it wasn't that big a contribution, sounding like the B-side of a single from Clapton's 1977 album Slow Hand.
With his TV beer commercial and his sound-track work on Lethal Weapon 2, Clapton hasn't been keeping compromises at arm's length lately. But when he does Ray Charles proud on a cover of Charles's "Hard Times," Clapton shows the kind of respect for tradition that has marked his 30-year career. It's easier to forgive his weakness for the almighty buck when he shows as much class as he so often does on this album. (Reprise)