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'Back Home' finds Clapton more settled

If anyone deserves a happy family life, it's Eric Clapton. He endured a well-publicized nightmare in 1991 when his 4-year-old son, Conor, died in an accidental fall from a Manhattan high-rise. But Clapton is now remarried and has two young daughters, which helps explain the sense of domestic bliss on his new album, ''Back Home," released today.

The record marks Clapton's first original material in four years and signifies a return to the engaging, soul/R&B style he favored in the '80s, with horns and backup singers adding to his ever-exquisite guitar playing.

He outlines his family role in the very first song, ''So Tired," about how ''the babies all need feeding and one of them is teething." Any parent can relate, while many fathers can appreciate the verse: ''Thank God their mama is a natural / She knows exactly what to do." The album later culminates with ''Run Home to Me" about a joyous day spent at the beach with the family, and the title track, with Clapton confessing, ''All I know is I will die if I don't get back home."

Throughout all this upbeat talk, Clapton avoids being maudlin. The album is an honest admission from a former rock renegade (not to mention heroin addict) who has simply found his way back home. He's 60 years old, but better late than never.

One has to root for him, especially when the music is this inspired. Clapton enlists a number of guests -- among them Steve Winwood, John Mayer, and Robert Randolph -- and they contribute low-key but effective cameos. Randolph adds tasty dobro to yet another original love song, ''One Track Mind." And rock legend Billy Preston, who has been in Clapton's touring band, adds some of his funkiest keyboard lines in years.

Another bonus is the quality of the cover songs. The idealism of George Harrison's ''Love Comes to Everyone" now suits Clapton perfectly, as does Stevie Wonder and Syreeta Wright's ''I'm Going Left." And the Spinners' ''Love Don't Love Nobody" is about the need to work at love. It has Clapton singing in a pleading falsetto that ranks with his finest blue-eyed soul moments.

The album was recorded at the same time as Clapton's blues tribute to Robert Johnson, ''Me and Mr. Johnson," which came out last year. Clapton recently told Billboard that when he got bogged down recording an original song, he would do a Johnson tune for relief, then discovered the Johnson album was ready first. But rest assured that ''Back Home" was worth the wait.

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