I’ve always had a big soft spot for Elton John. As a kid, I was a real fan, and this was quite a while after his 1970s heyday, during a time when it was highly unfashionable to be an Elton John fan; so I endured much abuse over it, but that only made me dig in my heels all the more. And I will still make a case in hostile company for Elton John when he is doing what he does best. The question is, what does he do best?
The producer of this new album, The Diving Board, is the estimable T-Bone Burnett, and he characterizes it as being “an album of music by a master at the peak of his artistic powers.” (It would naturally be highly dismaying if the album’s producer said it was merely mediocre.) For T-Bone, it’s all inspired by the shows in America that Elton did in 1970, which broke him into the big time: just piano, bass and drums, and some incendiary performing. (Well represented on the album 11/17/70.) This album is based around the same basic trio, although there are occasionally some other colors added such as horns and backing vocals.
It’s my own conviction that Elton is at his best when he succeeds in channeling some kind of deep American rootsy-ness, letting it burst forth through his highly-English soul in his piano-playing and singing, and creating something rather unique, inspirational, charming and joyous. It might be a gospel kind of feeling, it might be R&B, it might be country and western, and Elton might be hamming it up to a ludicrous level, but when all the cylinders are firing and the song itself is good enough, Elton can really hit a height. He can get somewhere. A few examples I’ll just pick without regard to whether they are “greatest hits” or not, from the approximately 25,000 songs he’s recorded: “Honky Cat,” “Where’s the Shoorah?,” “I Don’t Care,” and “My Father’s Gun.” In addition to these kinds of tracks where Elton really “gets the feeling” (as Van Morrison might put it) there are also those occasional standout lush ballads that you just can’t not like (e.g. “Your Song“) and his super-catchy if quite inane masterworks (e.g. “Island Girl” or “Crocodile Rock“). He’s done so much stuff. But the space in between the things he does really well leaves a lot of room for things that don’t ultimately go anywhere (even if they go to the top of the charts). These are records that cannot escape being merely maudlin, or cloying, or bland. Continue reading Elton John – The Diving Board