Elton John is a song stylist. He is a song-maker. He is the definition of the musical artist whose greatest hits album will easily replace an extensive collection of all his works. In a career of spotty records and a long streak of misfires, we can salvage a handful of great songs here and there. Now, if only the albums padding these diamonds in the rough were not, on par, dreadful.
It was not always thus. In the early days, under different hairpieces, Mr. John was an album artist. His finest record, the essential Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road, whence the bulk of those greatest hits are mined, is comparable to any rock recording of the 1970s. Sometime after that, though, Elton forgot how to put together a good, solid album — an album that can be played without repeated use of the fast forward or replay button. In the meanwhile, he has mastered the “hit-and-run” single, the contribution to the romantic comedy soundtrack, the “greatest hit.”
Surprisingly, Sir Elton’s newest, Songs From the West Coast, is a welcome return to the serious art of album-making — a pared-down, joyful pop triumph — at least on a small scale. File it with David Bowie’s Hours or The Rolling Stones’ Bridges to Babylon as recordings from former musical force majeures that makes us remember just why we used to buy their albums in the first place.
Like Hours and Bridges, Songs From the West Coast is flawed. It is a throwback, like so many recent incarnations of the once-greats, and never quite reaches the heights of the original that it strives to recreate. But it is a lucid enough piece of rock to make us believe, if only for a few moments, that the bitch really is back.
Songs opens inauspiciously with theÊclunky “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” The nicest thing to be said about this tune is that it’s the catchiest song in recent memory to celebrate strutting around an apartment completely naked. Rolls of the eye may abound as Elton croons the line: “Every inch of us growing like Pinocchio’s nose.” To be sure, this is the same burlesque sense of humor, attributed to longtime lyricist/collaborator Bernie Taupin, that has carried Elton through his many costumes. But get past this slightly silly stumbling block, and you’re in for a treat.
With “Dark Diamond,” the album hits a stride of strong hooks and driven pop. The pure rock inertia of Songs becomes irresistible. It is enjoyable in a way few albums can be. It’s hard to tell whether the key to the album’s success is just how seriously Elton takes his bare, non-flamboyant new (or, more accurately, old) sound, how true he stays to his roots, or how much fun he has in each song, simply playing some fine pop. At any rate, this is a most unpretentious album — quite a shift of gears for John.
Each song stays its welcome, exactly. Strings sound, but not to Aerosmith levels of excess. “Original Sin” is an exercise in subtle but effective usage of a string section that complements the tune of this simple ballad without drowning it in overblown melodrama. Even when Taupin’s lyrics reveal their saccharine aftertaste, the simple, smart composition of the album carries each song through with minimal loss of face. For instance, I enjoy the song “Original Sin” regardless of the line: “Oh, the furnace wind is a flickering of wings about your face in a cloud of incense.” But that’s the power of good pop.
The album is not, however, without its great lyrical pit-stops. On the Dylan-esque “Birds,” the Christmas present of a line “And everywhere I look there’s something to learn. A sliver of truth from every bridge we burn.” And in John’s compelling blues riff (yes, blues riff) “The Wasteland,” John growls (yes, growls): “Come on, Robert Johnson. Though we’re worlds apart, you and I know what it’s like with the Devil in our hearts.” And perhaps the best line in the album: “Up in the balcony all the Romeos are bleeding for your hand, blowing theater kisses, reciting lines they don’t understand.”
The best song on the record is the stirring, haunting “American Triangle,” lamenting homophobia in Middle America. Simply put, this is John’s best song in at least a decade. Elton has always known how to milk a minor chord, but here he does it with heartbreaking precision and a chilling message, belting his chorus “Western skies don’t make right. Home of the brave don’t make no sense.” This is a personal issue for Elton, approached withÊequal tenderness and venom.
As for the pitfalls of Songs, there is the Beatles ode/rip-off “I Want Love,” unsettlingly similar to “All You Need Is Love.” Even the simplistic chorus eerily mimics John Lennon: “That’s the love I want, I want love.” Anybody remember the line “All you need is love, love is all you need?”
On “The Boy in the Red Shoes,” John shoots for “Tiny Dancer” and almost hits the mark, in a song written as a swan song for a once-great artist, it seems. “Take my red shoes, I can’t wear them anymore,” whimpers John, perhaps referencing the ruby slippers of his golden days on Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road. If the tune falls flat, it is because this farewell seems so out of place on Songs From the West Coast.
This album is far from the last cry of a once-great. Rather, it’s a stirring return to form. Is it a sign of things to come? A second renaissance, a la Bob Dylan’s recent soaring reinvention? Only time and tape will tell. For now, though, it seems that Elton has finally found that joie de vivre he left back on the Yellow Brick Road.