Album Review: Chuck Berry - 'Chuck'
Prior to his death, “Chuck,” the final album from rock and roll legend Chuck Berry, was already anticipated to be the rock pioneer’s last studio effort. After all, he had not released an album of primarily new material since 1979.
And while audiences have become more receptive over the years to older rock musicians, it was going to be tough to imagine a 90-year-old performer, even one with Berry’s pedigree, as anything much more than a novelty act. But because of Berry’s March 18 passing, “Chuck” will have a poignancy not normally associated with his good-time music.
The posthumous album from the old guard rock star is inevitably going to become a staple of the album release calendar, morbid as that may sound. It’s a convergence of several factors: fewer young artists have highly anticipated albums, more older artists are continuing to make music as rock and roll became the genre of all ages, and not merely of the youth, and the first and second generations of rock’s musicians are growing older.
For many listeners, an obvious recent example of this phenomenon was David Bowie’s “Blackstar.” Although the album was released two days before the Thin White Duke’s death, for those of us who didn’t listen immediately, the album sounded like a requiem, full of the majesty and experimentation which defined Bowie’s career.
And while “Chuck,” recorded from 1991 to 2014, is a more literal posthumous album, those of us who deeply appreciate St. Louis’s greatest cultural export weren’t ready for a funeral march. I know I wasn't.
I hoped for “Chuck” to be a reminder of the fun, loose spirit of Berry’s heyday – ideally, of course, a good album in its own right, but at worst a joyous nostalgia trip. It is the former.
The first taste of the album came from the lead single, “Big Boys,” featuring guitar from Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello and Hermann, MO native, Nathaniel Rateliff.
It opens with the iconic “Chuck Berry riff,” the unmistakable guitar sound which defined “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen” and countless other Berry staples. The song is lightweight in a vacuum, but it is also what defines the artist.
The vocals are typically sharp. While Berry was generally more acclaimed as a guitarist and songwriter, and certainly he was never an all-timer in terms of vocal power or range, his lyrical delivery was consistently direct and articulate from “Maybellene” through his final album.
The first track on the album, however, was a slightly less obvious cut than “Big Boys,” “Wonderful Woman,” a love song about Berry’s late wife Toddy.
Of course, the Chuck Berry equivalent to a ballad still makes for a fun listen, and the guitar solos from Gary Clark Jr., probably the most acclaimed guitarist in America not yet old enough to run for president, are worth the price of admission alone.
Following “Big Boys,” comes the third track, “You Go to My Head,” a song featuring heavy female backing vocals, which combines some aesthetic similarities to Sinatra-esque vocal jazz and, well, rock and roll, the genre which, as John Lennon so famously phrased it, “You might as well call ‘Chuck Berry.’”
“3/4 Time (Enchiladas)” is a somewhat silly, live-sounding song laced with innuendo which might be considered obvious were it not from the man who gave the world “My Ding-a-Ling,” while “Darlin,” once again, dips into the album’s co-central theme of love. (The other theme, of course, being -- ‘I’m Chuck Berry and nobody in pop music history gets more adoration just for being himself than I do.’)
“Lady B. Goode,” a blatant sequel to his most famous and enduring hit, is a minor disappointment if you are expecting a song comparable to “Johnny B. Goode.” But as a non-standout album track, it is adequate.
“She Still Loves You,” a somewhat slower, bluesy jam that sounds like the kind of song that would feel at home on a middle-era Led Zeppelin album. (It’s a bit hard to spot influences from an artist who has influenced so much that it is hard to remember that he did not literally invent music.)
“Jamaica Moon,” a remake of a lesser hit of his from his peak years, “Havana Moon,” sounds far more listenable with modern production in his arsenal.
“Dutchman,” a spoken-word autobiography, is backed by a cool, laid-back instrumental track, which makes the overall product a tremendous final career note, even if it was the album’s penultimate track.
The final cut, “Eyes of Man,” is typical of the album – cool guitar, yes, but defined by Berry’s voice.
Berry is often compared to the artists who came after him, with good reason, though his semi-contemporary, Johnny Cash, might be an appropriate one for this album, and truly for much of his career.
Berry is the definitive classic rock and roller for much the same reason that Cash is the definitive classic country artist, because neither limited himself to how others perceived the genre. Cash was a little bit of a rocker, and Berry was a little bit country. Berry was definitively St. Louis, a cultural crossroads of influences black and white, rich and poor, northern and southern.
“Chuck” will not be Berry’s legacy, but it is an excellent encapsulation of everything he represented.