Erupting in the mid-‘50s, the rambunctious music known as rock’n’roll was a diverse beast, with major talents like Elvis Presley, Little Richard and others offering their own idiosyncratic versions of the sound that changed the world. While no single person could embody this unstoppable revolution, Chuck Berry came closer than anyone else. His adrenalized fusion of R&B, blues, country and even easy listening created a vital template that continues to resonate today. Those blazing guitars and witty songs, whether encountered in his original recordings or via the appropriations of his many, many acolytes, are so familiar it’s impossible to listen with fresh ears, but boy, have they stood the test of time.
Announced last fall on his 90th birthday, almost four decades after his previous LP, Chuck is a surprisingly strong effort, age be damned, and an eloquent summation of what the man was about. Though Berry was a singles artist in his prime, this is a terrific, cohesive album that reconsiders past glories, reaffirms old obsessions and reflects on his waning days. Following Berry’s passing in March, it’s a pungent, moving goodbye.
The 1958 hit “Johnny B. Goode” is Chuck’s most prominent touchstone, with the high-octane “Lady B. Goode” supplying a sequel from the viewpoint of Johnny’s sweetheart. The subdued, spoken-word “Dutchman” also references “Johnny” in a portrait of a down-and-out musician who might have been Berry in less-favorable circumstances. And “Johnny B. Goode”’s incandescent opening riff resurfaces in “Big Boys,” the exuberant story of a young’un discovering “what makes the world go ‘round” (i.e., sex) and partying ‘til the break of day.
His interest in carnal matters also informs “Wonderful Woman,” the rowdy opening track, and a jaunty live version of Tony Joe White’s “Enchilada,” echoing Berry’s sleazy 1972 chart-topper “My Ding-a-Ling.” Desire takes a more complicated turn in the ballad “She Still Loves You,” which tells a tale of divided romantic affections, only to leave an unsavory aftertaste.
Berry’s clear-eyed acceptance of his own mortality cuts the deepest. On the gentle “Darlin’” he concludes, “Life can pass so fast away.” In “Eyes of Man,” the somber closing track—and thus his final statement—he says human achievement is “doomed to decay and rot to dust.” What might have seemed bitter feels oddly soothing, however, thanks to the sense of calm conveyed by his smooth recitation.
Guest appearances by Gary Clark Jr., Tom Morello and Nathaniel Rateliff aside, Chuck is a cozy family-and-friends affair, recorded mostly in hometown St. Louis studios, and featuring support by his son, grandson and daughter, and members of his stage band. It’s a graceful last testament from a man seemingly at peace with himself. Hail, hail and farewell, Chuck Berry!