In first playing Clapton, the newest studio album from guitar rock demigod Eric Clapton, it was only natural to expect another bloated serving of overproduced, lazily written, commercially conscious radio pop.
That has been the bill of fare since the once-industrious guitar titan became more of a celebrity-savvy rock 'n' roll underachiever in his recording career.
Let's face it. His performance chops have remained solid through the years, but Clapton's creative ingenuity as an album artist had pretty much evaporated.
And now this? A 62-minute, 14-track album with Clapton tackling tunes by Hoagy Carmichael and Irving Berlin? A record that shifts from lean, blues-rooted soul to sly guitar collaborations with J.J. Cale (that, by the way, beat anything the two came up with on their 2006 collaborative album, The Road to Escondido) to New Orleans romps featuring Wynton Marsalis, Allen Toussaint and Trombone Shorty?
Never miss a local story.
For the most part, it's pretty tasty stuff, too. One gets the idea that the guitarist's recent tour with Steve Winwood might have been the catalyst for the stylistic soul-searching prevalent on Clapton.
It opens with a sweaty, roots-driven quartet tune titled Travelin' Alone that is drenched in swamp boogie guitar grooves and churchy organ lines. The mood then brightens for the lighter blues stride of Carmichael's Rocking Chair, with Clapton happily trading guitar licks with part-time protégé Derek Trucks.
Now, hitch all that up to curiously orchestrated summits with Cale that are full of hushed vocals, jazzy reverence and the kind of crafty string colors that recall Paul Buckmaster's expert arrangements on Elton John's early records, and you would have enough ammo to claim Clapton as Clapton's best album in eons. But things get wilder from there.
On My Very Good Friend the Milkman (cut previously by Fats Waller, among others), Clapton turns the sunshine up a notch for a cheery New Orleans brass-band outing featuring Marsalis, Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews and the luminous clarinet of Dr. Michael White. Harry Woods' When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful adds a summery Toussaint piano solo to the mix.
And what of the blues? Clapton's got them, but he's not pouring his heart out on guitar. On Lane Hardin's Hard Times Blues, he leaves the solos to co-producer Doyle Bramhall II, preferring instead to play mandolin.
Not everything works. Clapton and Bramhall ladle on the strings of the London Session Orchestra too generously at times, especially on an otherwise enticing take of Berlin's How Deep Is the Ocean. And for all of its sense of surprise, it would have been really cool to have heard the album-closing jazz standard Autumn Leaves as an intimate instrumental minus the strings.
But one can't complain with the bulk of Clapton. In a career marked by artistic and personal comebacks, this might just go down as his biggest and most satisfying surprise yet.