Legends fade. It happens. But Chuck Berry—whose material from a short nine-year period singlehandedly made him the greatest songwriter in rock and roll history—tapered off quicker than most, releasing his album-format peak St Louis to Liverpool in 1964 (featuring the career highlights “You Never Can Tell” and “Promised Land”) before mostly doing away with the idea of writing new songs altogether. He released some unremarkable albums in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, but after 1979’s Rock It, he became a great, an immortal, somebody whose records spoke for themselves. Why write new songs when you wrote “Maybellene”?
His passing aside, there’s no reason why a new Chuck Berry album in 2017 should be good. Yet, here we have it, a posthumous Berry album, recorded just before his death at 90, and it’s good. Very good. Close to great, even.
What keeps Chuck from greatness is the same thing that keeps it from being mundane: its lack of musical ambition. This is both its savior and its crutch. Two of the songs are covers, another two are rewrites of classic Berry tunes, and throughout, it’s mostly a retread of ideas that he covered in his peak years—with the exception of the fabulous “Dutchman,” which sounds almost like Tom Waits. This keeps the record from impressing much once you get past the idea that a good new Chuck Berry album has come out. On the other hand, I’m not sure I’d want to hear a Berry record that tries something new. He knows what works, and here, he’s doing that, updating only to put Tom Morello and Nathaniel Rateliff on the lead single “Big Boys.”
The truly astounding parts of this album are the moments that deal with women. It’s hard to assess Berry without looking at his criminal record, most notably his arrest for videotaping women in the bathroom of Southern Air, a restaurant he owned. Like so many other great artists, loving Berry means accepting—though not forgetting—his faults and mistakes; they’re part of the package. Still, it is remarkable that he here opens with a song called “Wonderful Woman,” rewrites “Johnny B. Goode” as “Lady B. Goode,” and closes with the borderline feminist “Eyes of Man.”
In the end, however, calling this feminist may be giving it too much credit. Chuck is a listenable, strong collection that caps his career nicely and solidifies the man as a brilliant troubadour and guitarist to the end. And lest we think he couldn’t get wiser or more insightful than he was in 1957, check out “Darlin’” and “Big Boys,” the former a heartfelt song written for his children, the latter a throwback to the high school odes he used to write with one important distinction: it’s written in the past tense.