Johnny Clegg’s King of Time

In the fall of 2017, South African singer Johnny Clegg released what he knew would be his last album.  Clegg had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and while he’d already managed to complete a world tour after getting the diagnosis, the disease was winning.  King of Time is appropriately titled.  The album is very short — it has seven songs spanning 24 minutes — but Clegg was a busy man trying to get as much done in whatever time he had left.  (His time regrettably ran out in July 2019.) Clegg collaborated on King of Time with producer and multi-instrumentalist Denholm Harding, who updates Clegg’s combination of pop and rock styles with traditional African music and the mixture of English and Zulu languages by folding in a more current and electronic sound.  The songs maintain the same sense of catchiness, purpose, and musical adventure that characterized all of Clegg’s life’s work.

The album’s opener is also its title track and ear worm.  “King of Time” hops along to a synth-reggae rhythm, as Clegg sings about wanting to reverse the clock in order to correct a mistake that chased a girl away.  The infectious chorus mixes English and Zulu lyrics in Clegg’s trademark, inimitable style.  “I’ve Been Looking” was written and co-sung by Clegg’s son Jesse.  Jesse Clegg was the small child that Clegg carried on his shoulders on the cover of his 1990 album *Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World*, but he is now a musician in his own right.  This song is the only one  King of Time to directly address Johnny Clegg’s failing health; perhaps it took Jesse to acknowledge it amidst a flurry of activity.  “Looking at the sky and I’m wondering how I got here.  All I want to do is tell you about my fear.  Standing on the edge and I’m looking at your face.  Tell you how I’m feeling.  These are the things I can’t replace.”  Jesse was very clearly hanging on to every last word.

Johnny Clegg spends the rest of the album revisiting some of the  lyrical themes that guided his musical career. On “Colour of My Skin,” featuring backing vocals from the venerable African singer Angelique Kidjo, Clegg laments, “I’m caught inside the colour of my skin; people see me from the outside in.”  While the world has improved in that regard since Clegg started his musical journey, and perhaps in no place more than South Africa, we still get painful reminders that much work still needs to be done.  But if Clegg believed in anything, it was that much more unites us than divides us.  At face value, the more ominous song “Witness” is about a reluctant observer of a crime.  But ultimately, it is a reflection on Clegg’s artistic career.  “And I’m trapped inside by these things I have seen.  There’s another life that I know could have been.  I never asked to be part of this!  Wrong place, wrong time to witness.”  Clegg as a child would sometimes go into the black townships with his stepfather, an investigative reporter.  That was how he first learned about the Zulu language and culture.  At some point, he realized he had seen too much to remain silent.

On “Wishing Well,” Clegg sings about a complicated world full of beauty and sadness, where people need to support each other.  “Sometimes we step into the dark to see the light,” Clegg sings, acknowledging that sometimes the path forward does not avoid the negative things in the world, but goes through them.  Moving away from the darkness, Clegg sings about taking refuge with the woman he loves on the more upbeat “Sail Away.”  The album closes with “Oceanearth,” on which Clegg sings about how the land and ocean that sustain us now need our help.  “I am the ocean.  I am the earth.”  All living things are connected to the ground, to the water, and to each other.

The obvious criticism to make of King of Time is that it is difficult to make such a short album fully satisfying.  But just as obviously, Johnny Clegg’s final album needs to be placed in some context. Between preparing for a final tour that spanned the globe and writing an autobiography that he knew he may not live long enough to finish (he didn’t), Clegg knew his time was limited.  So he wrote as much new music as he could write, and he made the album he could make.  All that being said, there are a number of good songs on the album, especially the title track. And the album serves as a good summation of a life and career which proved successful on so many different levels beyond the commercial one.

(Universal, 2017)

About Scott Gianelli

Scott Gianelli is a college professor on Long Island. When not teaching physics or climate, he can be seen carting his guitar and bouzouki around to Swedish folk dances or amusing himself playing games of all sorts. He has a blog on energy and climate called The Measure (http://themeasuregw.blogspot.com), and can be reached at scottgianelli@yahoo.com.