The word tears can be heard in no fewer than four songs on “Pilgrim,” Eric Clapton’s first album of original material in almost a decade. Given that his son Conor died nearly seven years ago, it may seem odd that Clapton has only now made an album haunted by his memory. But in terms of the stages of mourning, it makes perfect sense. If the shell-shocked calmness of “Tears in Heaven” represented Clapton’s initial trauma, his subsequent forays into blues represented a creative form of denial. It was only a matter of time before the full weight of Clapton’s loss sank in, hence “Pilgrim.”
Roughly half of the album makes references to Conor; “Circus,” for instance, laments the “little man, with his heart so pure,” and uses the image of a carnival closing down as a metaphor for his 4-year-old son’s death. The single, “My Father’s Eyes,” finds Clapton looking for comfort in his own family. The lyrics are self-flagellating and sorrowful, but in a frustratingly generic way. The opaque sentiments that mostly serve to reduce his own torment and suffering to bland generalities.
Clapton seems to want the music to speak for his emotions as much as his own words do. With its mournful tone and its surfeit of mid-tempo, string-enhanced ballads, “Pilgrim” does have the feel of a somber musical wake. But it never matches the emotional intensity and visceral passion of his previous pain-as-art masterpiece, “Layla.” Despite some flowing, acoustic-flavored tracks and nods to ?Change the World?-style R&B, “Pilgrim” feels sluggish and gauzy. With Clapton singing in a voice that rarely ventures from a sigh-creased whisper, the music feels like it’s been injected with a tranquilizer.
In the past, blues has served as Clapton’s salvation, but it’s telling of “Pilgrim” that its genre workouts feel strained and rote. It’s impossible to fault him for any ongoing numbness from his loss. But the truly sad thing about “Pilgrim” — for Clapton and maybe all of us — is that not even music may have the power to heal certain types of pain.