Chuck Berry didn't hang up his rock & roll shoes after releasing Rock It in 1979, but he did stop writing and recording new songs. The next few decades were filled with performances as he traveled across the country with guitar in hand, settling down in his hometown of St. Louis for a residency at the local restaurant Blueberry Hill in 1996. He wasn't a recluse but he was indifferent to a recording career, consenting to be the subject of Taylor Hackford's 1987 documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll (and proceeding to drive the director mad) but adding no new songs to the film. By all indications, Berry had lost interest in composing, but in a December 2001 profile in Rolling Stone he mentioned that he had started writing songs again. He admitted he had been "reluctant to make new songs" and worried that it might be "ill-mannered to try and top myself, adding, "You see, I'm not an oldies act. The music I play, it is a ritual. Something that matters to people in a special way. I wouldn't want to interfere with that."
New Chuck Berry music didn't appear the following year or the next. It didn't arrive until June of 2017, when Chuck appeared three months after Berry passed away at the age of 90. Chuck proves Berry's contention that he wasn't an oldies act to be correct. Neither an exercise in nostalgia nor a desperate stab at relevance, Chuck is the most unexpected of things: a new album that feels like authentic Chuck Berry music. It helps that Berry frequently tips his hat to the past, revisiting all the sounds and styles he's favored since the mid-'60s. Naturally, there are a bunch of three-chord rockers and blues, but Chuck also indulges in a bit of raunchy crowd work via "3/4 Time (Enchiladas)" (a sharper variation of "My Ding-A-Ling"), dreamy love songs ("You Go to My Head," "Darlin'"), and his song-poems ("Dutchman," which is the best of these he ever wrote). What's striking about these cuts, along with the ravers "Wonderful Woman" and "Big Boys" that get Chuck off to a rousing start, is how this record feels familiar but fresh: Berry may have been working from a weathered playbook but he's only interested in the moment at hand, the present when he steps to the mike to play guitar and sing. To that end, Chuck benefits by existing somewhat outside of time. It contains ten songs written between 1980 and 2016, all recorded sometime after 2001 (and likely well before 2014, considering how robust Chuck's vocals sound). Berry makes no attempt to chase trends or offer a final statement; he just gathers his ten best recent tunes and that's why Chuck is such a fitting epilogue to a legendary career. It captures the essence of Chuck Berry, how he could turn the everyday into something exciting.