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Album Review: Gary Clark Jr. ‘The Story of Sonny Boy Slim’

Consider the difference between Mumford & Sons’ and Kendrick Lamar’s second album. The arena folk rock act came in hot with with Babel, its highly commercialized, chart topping album that made them the household name they are today. Lamar was expected to do the same this year but instead delivered the masterful political and cultural art album that is To Pimp A Butterfly. Both strategies worked in those cases, but only because the artists fully committed to that line of attack.  
Gary Clark Jr. had the opportunity to make that sort of impact with his sophomore album The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, but winds up somewhere in the middle of innovation and wide-reaching success.
The virtuosic blues guitar player has turned heads ever since his 2010 performance at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, and his debut album Blak And Blu cemented this young musician as a major mover and shaper in the blues rock scene.
Sonny Boy was the name Clark’s mother would call him and his friends called him Slim, making this album his story. It’s about finding salvation from the dark world we live in through music. How Clark has bettered his life and how he can help others through his music.
That can be a powerful message, however, Clark is just too vague about what those problems are to make it as powerful as some of the other self-empowerment albums of the year — namely Chance the Rapper’s work on Surf by Donnie Trumpet And The Social Experiment and D’Angelo’s masterful return on Black Messiah. Those albums had targeted and in many ways similar messages about black culture in America, while taking drastically different musical, stylistic and lyrical approaches to the topic. When I saw the album cover depicting a young Clark Jr. looking up at a school bus as if overwhelmed about the world he was about to encounter, I got excited. Perhaps the Texas born guitarist could bring yet another fresh take on the topic that has swept our political and cultural landscape for the past year.
Alas, I’m left a little disappointed. The album’s subject matter is vague enough to make it  relatable but to the extent that it feels impersonal. In that way the album is very much a stepping stone for an artist who has endless potential.
The two opening tracks — “Healing” and “Grinder” —  will appeal most to fans of the southern-tinged Eric Clapton blues that launched Clark Jr.’s career on Blak and Blu. They have that catchy guitar riff that gets in your head on the first listen, and they are the songs he’ll play most often live because they’re made to open up for some manic guitar solos.
Afterwards, he begins to experiment and get funky. He’s playing more with R&B soul grooves, layering in horns and multiple guitar lines that are meant to support the song as a whole rather than soar in overtop a thin foundation. Songs such as “Our Love” and “Cold Blooded” are also showing off the guitarist’s high falsetto more than ever before. Those killer guitar solos of old are still very much present on the album. “Hold On” and the album’s closing track “Down To Ride” in particular show off those skills in new ways.
If the beginning of this review sounds like I’m disappointed, it’s because I am. Blak and Blu was my soundtrack for so long that I had high expectations for his second release. The Story of Sonny Boy Slim is a good album you should listen to as soon as you get a chance, but it feels like Gary Clark Jr. is only scratching the surface with this one, and I can’t wait to see what happens when he masters that sound he’s looking for.
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