Album Assignments: 461 Ocean Boulevard

Summer’s here, and the time is right for an album like 461 Ocean Boulevard. This record has always felt like a sunny day to me, and I paid attention in this assignment to figure out why.

It helps a lot that Eric Clapton evokes the other artist who’s always felt like summer to me: Bob Marley. Clapton’s cover of “I Shot The Sheriff” is smoother and more laid-back than Marley’s original, which isn’t to say it doesn’t lilt and swing. The story in the song is a rather grim one, really, but you’d never know it from Clapton’s tone. He sounds like he’s recounting events from a long, safe distance away, much more so than Marley ever did. And he sounds like he’s having a great time retelling the story of his daring escape, all the while defending his adherence to a code of honor.

Similarly somber lyrically, but far less mellow musically, is “Motherless Children.” These lyrics return again and again to the downbeat theme: “your mother is dead.” But where the music could be a slow, sad blues, instead we get a funky and danceable beat and Clapton’s best riff on the album. I know the song is about orphans, but it is undeniably, irrepressibly joyful and fun, a strange combination that somehow works. It’s so fun, in fact, that it once served as the theme song to a comedy show, HBO’s 1980s Daily Show predecessor, Not Necessarily The News. It’s absolutely the kind of song that would blast from the speakers at a barbecue, its toe-tapping rhythm weaving around good times in the sun.

Album cover for 461 Ocean Boulevard

Those two songs are the most energetic on the album — much of the rest of the set is laid back, way back. Take “Let It Grow”, for example. This is more like the evening conversation after most of the party guests have left, and a few close friends sit on the deck under the warm stars. Clapton pitches his vocal so soft that he’s almost whispering in parts, and where the verses feel like musing, the choruses feel like prayer. Clapton released this album after three years in the hell of heroin addiction, and his exhortations to organic emotional roots feel heartfelt and hard-earned.

“Please Be With Me” isn’t quite so pleading (ironically) as “Let It Grow”, but it’s similarly introspective and hopeful. A glowing evocation of relationship devotion, it’s always been one of my favorites on the album. Clapton mixes nimble (but never showy) acoustic fingerpicking with lovely dobro accents, and Yvonne Elliman provides the sweetest harmonies throughout the song, especially on the chorus.

Elliman is kind of a secret weapon, or sometimes not so secret, throughout this album. She’d go on to a meteoric late-Seventies solo career in adult contemporary and disco hits, but on this album she finds a natural place in each soothing groove, managing to sound earthy and angelic by turns, or sometimes all at once. Her peak is probably in “Get Ready”, a duet with Clapton in which she upends his “I been cheated on” narrative, retorting that she’s just out for revenge following his own “sinful” actions, and taunting him with, “you’ve got a lot of nerve… waggling your piece of meat.” But again, where the music could be fierce and angry, it’s instead calm and leisurely.

I tend to respond more to lyrics most of the time, but for me it is pretty much always the music that sets the mood of 461 Ocean Boulevard. It’s not as if the album is stuffed with Beach Boy-esque lyrics about surfing, driving, and girls, but every track mixes warm instrumentation, relaxed vocals, and expansive rhythms to encompass every good mood, even when those moods stand in direct contrast to the lyrics.

The truth is, the lyrics don’t matter that much on this album. On some of the songs, like “Give Me Strength,” they reinforce the feeling of the music, but much of the time they’re more like “Mainline Florida”, which is about… I guess a relationship or something? It’s hard to say and it doesn’t make much difference, because the song isn’t really about a relationship, it’s about an easygoing riff, undergirded by smooth drums and cool harmonies, sweeping up above the waves and gliding elegantly back down.

The words could be about hand motions, for all the difference it makes. In fact, sometimes the words are about hand motions. “Willie And The Hand Jive” is maybe the summeriest song on the whole album. Clapton has a talent for making music without sounding like he’s trying, and this one sounds like it’s just wafting up into the air effortlessly. It’s the perfect emblem of 461 Ocean Boulevard — it feels good, it’s fun, it’s relaxed, and it’s the perfect accompaniment to a summer’s day.

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