ARTIST OF THE MONTH: ELTON JOHN
We run down the colossal and breathtaking works by the genuinely excellent artist Elton John as he is our Artist Of The Month. Collaborating with lyricist Bernie Taupin since 1967, John is one of the most successful artists of all time, having sold over 300 million records in a six-decade career in music. We will run down four albums every post and go through his incredible catalogue. Enjoy!
The Diving Board (2013)
2013's The Diving Board is easily the most meditative album Elton has ever made. An album consisting almost entirely of songs that riff on "Sixty Years On" and "Rotten Peaches" -- long, languid ballads or open-ended blues-rockers where atmosphere trumps hooks. Occasionally, Elton musters up elongated melodies that eventually catch hold, but The Diving Board isn't a collection of finely sculpted pop; it's a set of song-poems and ballads, all emphasizing mood, not immediacy. This is an exceptional idea in theory; in practice, it is ever so slightly formless, floating whenever it should be taking root. There are moments where the tempo gets ever so somewhat sprightly -- "Take This Dirty Water" has a dirty gospel shuffle reminiscent of a toned-down "Take Me to the Pilot," "The Ballad of Blind Tom" is faithful to the spirit of Tumbleweed Connection, "Mexican Vacation (Kids in the Candlelight)" not only rocks but has a welcome gust of tastelessness -- but that only emphasizes just how ponderous the rest of the record is. There is much that is admirable about The Diving Board -- the feel is spacious and haunting, the ambition is commendable -- but the emphasis on tone over song means it leaves only wistful wisps of melancholia behind, with the actual songs seeming like faded, distant memories.
Wonderful Crazy Night (2016)
Elton's most recent album finds that veteran artist in a radically different mood. Elton argued that with all the joy that had been happening in his life, he wanted an album to capture and reflect all of that. While we can argue that Elton's musical strengths lie in love ballads and songs with moodier undertones, we can not help but admire Elton for doing something like this. It's not glossy or glamorous like his party-orientated albums of the 80s; instead, 'Wonderful Crazy Night' emphasizes the maturity of its artist and shows that he's not too old to have a bit of fun. There's a fair amount of joy and swagger here, particularly on the ebullient opening pair of "Wonderful Crazy Night" and "In the Name of You," two songs perched between a canny, knowing nostalgia and casual craft. As the record rolls on, seams start to appear, not in the performances or production -- this is an album that sounds as comforting as a long candlelit bath -- but in the compositions. Often, the tunes appear to be handsome constructions -- grand, stately, and well-appointed --. Still, their foundations are shaky, constructed from threadbare melodies and words that dissipate not long after they land. It's an odd mix of lazy and laborious; the songs feel tossed together in an afternoon and then recorded meticulously. As such, Wonderful Crazy Night never lingers in the imagination -- there are no hooks to pull a listener back in for another spin -- but it sounds just fine as it plays.
Regimental Sgt. Zippo (2021)
This “long lost” 1968 would-be Elton John debut was shelved favouring 1969’s Empty Sky and found the young singer-pianist more of a psychedelic explorer than a chart balladeer. Beatles harmonies, harpsichords and flute-like sounds abound. At the same time, some of Bernie Taupin’s lyrics (“the watercolours of my mind” or near pastiche A Dandelion Dies in the Wind) are almost trippy. Titles such as When I Was Tealby Abbey (“not so long ago, maybe a hundred years or so”) show why the pair weren’t yet troubling the pop charts. However, the 12 songs – five in finished form for the first time, with You’ll Be Sorry To See Me Go previously unreleased – have a naive, endearing charm—many sounds on the verge of something, needing an extra melodic gear or surer lyrical touch. There are certainly hints of what was to come in the melancholy strains of songs about hurt and loneliness or in the sheer ambition of the epic, darkly baroque Nina. Turn to Me is the lost gem, a charming tune which finds the singer offering his heart to a lonely soul as Taupin edges into the now-familiar storytelling imagery. Within two years, the songs would slow down, Elton’s voice would deepen, and Your Song would begin the stream of classics that ensure that, half a century later, his career is still standing.
The Lockdown Sessions (2021)
Since his last studio album in 2013, Elton John has fashioned himself into an enthusiastic patron of contemporary pop via his Apple Music radio show. Rather than finish anything with Bernie Taupin, he’s decided to parlay his passion for new music into a collaboration album. Indeed this is the only place you’ll find Lil Nas X and Rina Sawayama alongside Eddie Vedder and the two Stevies, Wonder and Nicks. The Lockdown Sessions is a many-tentacled mix that positions John as a bejewelled curator, a guest on his album – or more of a “session player,” as he puts it – looking back wistfully at his career. The disco-gospel duet with Wonder, Finish Line, and Your Song-ish Stolen Car with Nicks evoke past glories, while Chosen Family with Sawayama pulls off Gaga levels of queer anthemia. But it’s the covers that take centre stage: It’s a Sin, performed sensationally with Olly Alexander at this year’s Brits, and Nothing Else Matters, on which John merely plays piano and Miley Cyrus delivers the best vocal performance of 2021. It’s all fun, though a little disjointed – and the less said about Elton’s trap song, Always Love You, with Nicki Minaj and Young Thug, the better.