Can a new Elton John album live up to the gold standard set by his early work? Ian Critchley finds out.
If it hadn’t been for Elton John playing that Brit award ceremony the other night (whilst being interview by professional smug git Dermot O’Leary) I wouldn’t have even known there was a new album.
But please don’t take me for some part-time Elton fan who only knows the Lion King soundtrack and very little else. I am a huge fan but of the much older stuff. The stuff that was released around twenty years before I was born, in fact. I’m talking about albums like Madman Across The Water, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player, and Rowan Atkinson favourite, Elton John (see here).
Those albums were wild, ground-breaking, and like nothing I’ve ever heard before. They filled with me the pull and tug of both wanting to make music that good, and also this disheartening blow that I knew I never would. I never really listened to Elton John after a certain point in his career, with a few exceptions creeping in by becoming “hits”, because I was scared that if I heard the later stuff it would ruin those early albums for me. I was afraid that, has time progressed, Elton John must have become another dino-musician churning out half-arsed albums which didn’t have a single iota of the fury that made the early stuff great and clarifying that would destroy what I knew and loved.
The Diving Board clarifies part of that previous statement, but thankfully it isn’t the former part. This record isn’t in the slightest a semi-concious effort. Perhaps I’ve been a fool for not delving into his later works as it’s clear that the once named Reg Dwight is still pouring his entire being into every second of this record. But, unfortunately, the fire that originally fuelled the Elton John sound seems to have dimmed significantly over the years. This isn’t a terrible thing, and probably for the best as a progressed Elton is much better than one attempting to still beat a dead horse ala UB40, and it isn’t as if the record is devoid of passion. Take for example ‘The Ballard Of Blind Tom’ which on first listen may seem as seasoned as others on the record, with it’s simplistic piano and percussion set up, but buried deep within is the same gusto of an early Elton record with the only real difference being the choice of instrumentation. It wouldn’t take much to switch this song into a rock ‘n’ roll flurry if a few additional instruments, and a swift boost to the tempo, were added. ‘Mexican Vacation (Kids In The Candlelight)’ is another prime example of this but, as with ‘The Ballard Of Blind Tom’ even though it gets close to that old Elton sound, there’s still that missing extra kick of pure adrenal fury.
Another thing that seems to have changed significantly from the early years are the vocals. I noticed it first during the aforementioned Brit Award performance during the song ‘Rocket Man’. Elton wasn’t going for the higher notes and instead adapting them into a more dulcet, Sinatra-esque, crooner inspired style. This album also seems to continue this design but it’s maturity doesn’t lie wholly with the vocals. The entire record, whether it be vocal melody, chord progressions, Bernie Taupin’s lyrics, and even the production, seem to be telling the world that the boy has long gone and developed into a man. Here we have an artist who has lived and died through more than most with each track telling a tale of woe and personal growth. Elton John started out sounding like the inbred love-child of Jerry-Lee Lewis’ relationship with his own cousin but has now morphed into a much more developed entity, thought whether this is for better or worse is down to personal opinion.
Because, in all honesty, this record isn’t a patch on the earlier stuff I love. But I’m barely quarter of a century old and, as Elton said himself, your early twenties are “filled with the adrenaline of youth and you’ll never get that back (paraphrased)”. What you can do however is progress into maturity with a high dose of style and aplomb, and Elton has done this with greater skill than most. He will never again be the man who, along with his partner in crime Taupin, wrote ‘Teacher I Need You’. But he’s still bloody good at what he does.
All words by Ian Critchley. More writing by Ian on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.