"F*ck you, I'm America's son/This is where I come from." Gary Clark, Jr. spits out that line with all the venom he can muster on the opening track of 2019's This Land, and while he's specifically challenging a racist neighbor who doesn't believe he can afford the Texas ranch he calls home, it also sounds like he's shouting down anyone who has dared to question his creative ambitions or tried to pigeonhole him as just another bluesman. Since making his major-label debut with 2012's Blak and Blu, Clark has steadily been widening his boundaries as a musician, and This Land is his toughest and most ambitious work to date, a bold and often ferocious set of songs that serves as a polyglot of African-American musical idioms and sharply articulate thoughts about American life in the midst of the Trump era. As on his previous albums, Clark frequently demonstrates he's a gifted and forceful guitarist, but on This Land, the songs are ultimately more important than the solos, and the rich, densely packed production, the melodic diversity of material, and the undiluted passion of the lyrics (and the way Clark delivers them) is what truly makes this album succeed. From the raw, funky rock of the title cut, the Chuck Berry on speed punkability of "Gotta Get Into Something," the proto-reggae menace of "Feeling Like a Million," the hard rock thunder of "What About Us," the slinky but robust R&B mood of "Don't Wait Til Tomorrow," and the Prince-meets-Hendrix groove of "Feed the Babies," This Land is stylistically fearless as Clark explores nearly every musical option that crosses his mind, and remarkably enough, all of it works, fitting together like distinct, individual pieces that make a larger and unified whole. While several of the tracks on This Land were built around samples and Clark reveals a deep knowledge of the history of African-American music, his vision is strong enough that This Land sounds fresh and compelling at every turn. Clark and co-producer Jacob Sciba have given it a potent sound that makes these songs sound as muscular and uncompromising as required. And while Clark plays most of the instruments himself on these sessions, bassist Mike Elizondo and drummer Brannen Temple generate grooves that are as big and as expressive as Clark's guitar. This Land is not an album many were expecting Gary Clark, Jr. to make when he burst into nationwide recognition at the start of the 2010s, and that's one of its greatest strengths -- it frequently upends expectations while confirming Clark's broad talent and imagination, and if this doesn't convince you he's a major artist, nothing will.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming