March 13, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST
We gave it a B-

From Puff Daddy and Faith Evans rapping a send-off to the Notorious B.I.G. to Elton John acting as the planetary voice of mourning for Princess Diana, pop has never been so haunted by death as it is now. Sometimes, as with Biggie, 2Pac, and Sublime’s Brad Nowell, the corpses themselves continue to serenade us from beyond the grave, becoming bigger (and more airplay-friendly) in death than they did in life. Although he surely didn’t intend it, Eric Clapton can lay claim to sparking this overall trend with ”Tears in Heaven,” his 1992 elegy to his son, Conor, who died from an apartment-window fall the year before. Clapton’s sorrow hasn’t abated, either — the word tears can be heard in no fewer than four songs on Pilgrim, Clapton’s first album of original material in almost a decade.

Given that his son passed away 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 the blues — on 1992’s Unplugged and the 1994 covers album From the Cradle — represented his escape, a creative form of denial. It was only a matter of time — years, perhaps — before the full weight of Clapton’s loss sank in: hence Pilgrim.

Roughly half of the album makes references, both explicit and implicit, 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 album’s first 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. Indeed, Pilgrim is a reminder that Clapton’s songwriting has long been hit-or-miss. ”All I know is since you’ve been gone/Feel like I’m drowning in a river of tears,” he sings in ”River of Tears,” typical of the opaque sentiments that mostly serve to reduce his own torment and suffering to bland generalities.

Clapton, long one of rock’s most self-effacing guitar heroes, 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 (even the orchestra is forced to play blues licks), 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. Clapton coproduced Pilgrim, with keyboardist and programmer Simon Climie, and the results are sluggish and gauzy. Clapton, understandably, sings in a voice that rarely ventures from a sigh-creased whisper, yet the music itself feels like it’s been injected with a tranquilizer.

That said, the lingering positive effects of his collaboration with Babyface, ”Change the World,” are heard throughout Pilgrim. Babyface pops up only once on the album, humming in the background on a cover of Bob Dylan’s ”Born in Time,” yet Pilgrim is dotted with light R&B touches that recall ”Change the World.” ”Needs His Woman” features the sauna-style harmonies of Tony Rich, and ”Broken Hearted” benefits from a more soulful groove. The acoustic-flavored tracks, such as the flowing ”Circus” and the skiffle-inclined ”Fall Like Rain,” also benefit from the influence of Babyface’s own unplugged side.

In the past, blues has served as Clapton’s salvation, but it’s telling of Pilgrim that its genre workouts feel strained and rote. (This may be the first Clapton album on which his acoustic fingerpicking is more distinctive and lively than his electric fretwork, which feels belchy by comparison.) Although he tries to get into the spirit by sinking his guitar into the four-bar romp of ”Sick and Tired,” Clapton may be the only blues singer, black or white, who can write and sing a line like ”I’m gonna buy me a parrot, baby, teach him how to call my name/ Then I won’t have to miss you, baby” with no humor or juicy nastiness. 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. B-

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