Review: Chuck Berry, 'CHUCK'
Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.
Chuck Berry's legacy didn't need another record, or any kind of postscript for that matter.
When he died this March, the obits hailed him as the chief architect and driving force behind rock and roll. He was described as the catalyst of a cultural revolution, a titan whose crisp songs and ringing guitar blazed a superhighway-sized trail for future generations.
Further down in those appreciations, this was tucked away: On his 90th birthday, last October, Berry announced the release of a new studio album, to be called CHUCK. That project sees release next week and is now streaming right on this page. The album features his touring band, with cameos from Tom Morello and Gary Clark Jr., and is the follow-up to a mostly forgettable 1979 effort called Rock It. That's right: Though he never stopped performing, Chuck Berry's previous studio record came out during the last days of disco.
If you have even a teensy bit of love for the sound Berry gave the world, the song that opens this posthumous release will bring a smile. It's called "Wonderful Woman," and like many of his classics, it alternates between vocal verses and deliriously rhythmic guitar ad-libs, featuring Clark Jr. and three generations of Berrys – Chuck, his son Charles Berry Jr., and grandson Charles Berry III. Early on, the patriarch makes the kind of declaration that animated so many early rock hits – "I feel good, like it's party time, don't you know" – and then offers a chorus of stinging, hot-wired guitar as proof.
Later he gives listeners a clue about his particular fountain of youth. He's recalling a moment on stage at a show, when he was struck by the beauty of a woman in the crowd. She proves unattainable. Still haunted by the memory, he sings "You was rocking me baby, with your rhythm in the second row."
That line resonates. If Berry was effective as a performer, it was because even in his last years, decades past retirement age, he still believed – and tapped into – the magical energy transfer that happens within great rock and roll. When he played, the exactitude and swagger of his rhythm made clear that, for him, this wasn't a nostalgia exercise. It was more like a lifeline. He was addicted to the electrical charge he created within the music, and trusted it would reach and energize his listeners.
CHUCK has a few moments where that circuit is inescapable, including the simultaneously locked-down and careening-out-of control "Big Boys" and a song called "Lady B. Goode" that harks back to his incendiary early work. With some artists, this kind of "redux" songwriting registers as lazy. In Berry's world, the lyrics and other specifics of the tune matter less than the overall feeling: There's something about the locomotive urgency of this rhythm that renews, in one swoop, the whole clattering enterprise of rock and roll.
Your mind says "heard that before!" and your body cannot possibly care – because for that moment all that matters is Chuck Berry playing guitar like he's ringing a bell, affirming the spirit of this music in ways that no performer, of any age, has done before.
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