Joe Bonamassa is rightly known as one of modern America's pre-eminent blues guitarists, even if he's obviously more influenced by the British blues wave of the sixties. On his prior album, Royal Tea, he explored that side specifically, recording at Abbey Road and with British guests on board like Bernie Marsden. This one, his fifteenth, is less British but he's never going to lose the British sound entirely, even if this album starts out with hand held drums and didgeridoo.
In fact, there's a lot here to digest, so much so that there are many points where we forget this is a blues album. Not for long, mind you, but there's a very telling line in Notches to point out: "I've been all the way around the world, there and back a time of two; that road leads me home, brings me back to the blues." This does a lot of wandering around the world, but it always comes back to the blues, rather like a base of operations for Bonamassa's dabblings in prog rock or world music.
Notches certainly seems like an international song, with a British bassist, South African drummer and percussionist and a line of Australian backing singers. Of course, Bonamassa is American and so is Charlie Starr of Blackberry Smoke who co-wrote it, bringing some southern rock in with him. It's rooted in the blues, of course, but it's more southern rock than blues rock and the midsection gets neatly experimental, Bonamassa's blues guitar floating through its landscape.
Similarly, Time Clocks is rooted in the blues but we often forget that. It's soft rock, it's arena rock and it's even country, especially in Bonamassa's guitar, which is often notable for how prominent it isn't. This is a good song that's hard not to like and hard not to sing along with, but it's often an oddly commercial Pink Floyd type of song, which isn't what I expected here. What I expected was a song like The Heart That Never Waits, the unadventurous blues song that sits between these two more interesting numbers.
And so it goes. There are routine blues songs here and there are more interesting diversions from the genre, always built on the blues but happy to move quite a decent way from it. Frankly, when it plays it safe, it's enjoyable but forgettable. Mind's Eye has us close our eyes and rock in our seats, because Bonamassa does this so effortlessly well, but I was forgetting it even as it played, with an earlier song like Questions and Answers stuck in my head instead.
Yet, even there, while it's agreeably odd, it's odd in an oddly mainstream way. It feels as if it's a dangerous song rendered safe so it doesn't bite us, strongly reminiscent of Tom Waits but with Mark Ribot's jagged guitar and Waits's unmistakeable roar replaced by smoothed out edges and smoother vocals. It grabs the ear but I'm aching to hear the non-existent original. The same goes for The Loyal Kind, with its Celtic whistle and folky melodies. It's a nice enough song, but it ought to be led by a strong female voice that transports us to the forest rather than soothe us like some citrus lozenge. It does find some balls, but only at points.
And I feel out of place for thinking this. Somehow, I think most of the people buying this are going to be happiest with the songs I like least, the effortless soulful funky blues of Hanging on a Loser, Curtain Call and The Heart That Never Waits. They're going to skip the songs that grabbed me the most, like Notches, Question and Answers and even the title track. Where they and I will meet is in a shared appreciation of Bonamassa's talents. Where we'll diverge once more is in what we think about how he uses them.
Frankly, I'd like him to shut up and play his guitar, as Frank Zappa put it, because his guitar is much more interesting to me than his vocals. And I'd like him to take more of the experimental turns he took here but to take the training wheels off when he does so, because he doesn't need them. It's as if he's feeling his middle age and thinks he's playing to the Jimmy Buffett audience. Sure, you'd started out because you heard Clapton, Joe, and he's as safe as they get nowadays, but you heard him do Crossroads in the sixties and he blistered. Don't you want to blister too?