There is a very distinct line that one can draw between classic-era 70s Elton and everything that came after. Most of Elton’s pre-80s work is worth investigating and sort of unrivaled in the 70s pop department. The vocals, the production, the writing, the playing – all immaculate. And then he loses his band and producer and taste and all of his work from the early 80s on is mostly terrible. It’s a very strange and tragic phenomenon – along with Stevie Wonder and Rod Stewart, Elton seems to be the poster boy for “jumping the shark.”
Tumbleweed Connection *
Madman Across The Water
Honky Chateau *
Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road *
Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy *
Rock Of The Westies
Here And There
Thom Bell Sessions
A Single Man
Victim Of Love
21 At 33
Too Low For Zero
Ice On Fire
Reg Strikes Back
Sleeping With The Past
Made In England
The Big Picture
Songs From The West Coast
The Captain And The Kid
The Union (With Leon Russell)
EMPTY SKY (1969)
This was Elton’s official debut, but it wasn’t even released in the States until the mid-70s. By that point, he was a huge star and making records that blow this one out of the water. So I can’t imagine this made much of an impression, and it probably registered more as a historical curio than an album worthy of critical attention. Yet, this is way better than it’s reputation, and should certainly be considered the “real” Elton John debut, as opposed to some early demo recording or something. First of all, it’s BETTER than the self-titled album – more varied, more rocking, with more energy and interesting singing. Elton is trying out a bunch of vocal styles on this record, which is quite refreshing to hear – after this, he’d always sound exactly the same until his voice dropped into its annoying late-career baritone. The title track here is rocking and fun, and “Western Ford Gateway” is one of the best early Elton songs. I also love the “Gulliver” section of the final medley, which should have been left as a stand-alone song. That being said, it’s clearly an early album, and parts of it sound sloppier and less confident than on the later records. That closing medley launches post-“Gulliver” into a dull jazzy jam, and then ends by reprising every song on the record – it’s one of the dumbest ideas I’ve ever heard on a record and leaves a sour taste in my mouth. There are also some total throwaways – “Lady What’s Tomorrow” is lame as heck, as is “Val-Hala” – but overall, this is well worth hearing and worthy of admittance in the “classic-era” Elton catalog.
ELTON JOHN (1970)
Way too serious, Elton! From the dark and somber album cover on down, this is the most self-conscious attempt by Elton to present himself as a serious singer-songwriter. But Leonard Cohen he is not, and Taupin CERTAINLY cannot compete as a serious lyricist. This is probably my least favorite of all the classic era Elton records. The production has definitely taken a giant step UP from the previous album (welcome to your new home, Gus Dudgeon), and this is the first Elton John album that actually sounds like an Elton John album. But the orchestrations are often way too sappy, and the lyrics at times unbearably fruity. Plus, the record is only half-good in the song-writing department. That half is really good though, and the winners here are better than pretty much anything on “Empty Sky.” Archetypical Elton piano-rocker “Take Me To The Pilot” is a total classic, and you can’t deny the simple power of “Your Song.” The latter, though, is so overplayed it’s hard to assess it objectively at this point. The Stones-rip “No Shoe Strings On Louise” has Elton affecting a “Beggar’s Banquet” Jagger hick voice, which he smartly dropped for the next country-themed record, but it’s still a solid song. And “Border Song” has never been one of my favorites, but it’s the first real Elton-gospel song, and the “Holy Moses” refrain is VERY memorable. Finally, “The King Must Die” is well-written and performed, if a bit overblown. The rest of the album….SUCKS. “I Need You To Turn To” is a hook-less bore, “First Episode At Hienton” totally unmemorable, “Sixty Years On” lame and dated, “The Greatest Discovery” unbearably corny and meandering, and “The Cage” a generic rocker with a dumb synth interlude. Thankfully, all of these early problems would disappear magically on the next record.
TUMBLEWEED CONNECTION (1970)
Elton’s best record and a total classic, this is easily one of the more underrated records by a canonized artist. It’s SO much better and consistent and poewrful than the albums immediately surrounding it, and huge leap up in quality for the team. A concept album about the “Wild West,” this could have been a schmaltzy dated disaster – instead, it’s got Taupin’s best ever lyrics, and some of the more tasteful, epic, and (surprisingly) rocking arrangements in Elton’s career. Basically every song rules – I particularly love the gospel-tinged rocker “Son Of Your Father,” ths powerfully sweeping “My Father’s Gun,” and the just simply great classic-Elton sounding “Amoreena.” And then of course there are the more well-known tunes – “Country Comfort” has an awesome arrangement and melody, and the uber-classic “Burn Down The Mission” is quite possibly the best song Elton and Bernie ever wrote. The band sounds amazing on this, the production is warm and lush and perfect, the flow is right and it feels like a real ALBUM, and there’s no filler (well, the Lesley Duncan cover “Love Song” would possibly qualify as filler, but it works in the context of the record). There was a lot of great material still to come from these guys – but no full record would ever match the greatness of this one. I really believe that this is one of the best pop records ever made.
There are only five vocal compositions on this movie soundtrack, and the rest is padded out with Paul Buckmaster orchestrated cues from the score. The orchestrations are dated and corny, and don’t bode well for this film which I’ve never seen. The Elton/Bernie songs are alright, and sound like outtakes from the self-titled album. They’re obviously the kind of tunes and arrangements Elton could pull off in his sleep at this point, and there are no surprises here. The title track is pretty but unmemorable. “Honey Roll” is a fun little boogie piano thing that’s basically cookie-cutter Elton John. Michelle’s Song is a really nice ballad, with a good refrain, but it’s not really as strong as comparable tracks on the albums proper. There’s also the pretty little fragment “Seasons.” The most substantial composition is the 6 minute “Can I Put You On,” which would have fit on the self-titled and held its own with much of the material there. It basically sounds like a re-write of ‘Take Me To The Pilot,” and even utitlizes some of the same vocal hooks. Elton has pretty much created his own little “piano gospel rock” genre here – things can can quite repetitive, but there’s no denying the distinctness of the vocals and piano playing.
Rock musicians should be held to the same standards as athletes. Because you know what? In 1970, Elton John kicked fucking ass. Everyone knows he turned into a total schlockmeister, and something of a hack. But as a young performer, he was truly special. Look no further than this live-in-the-studio record for proof. The energy level is through the roof, the piano playing and singing are great, the band kills, the audience is eating it up, and Elton just comes across like a natural born talent. This was before he became a gigantic superstar, and the material is under-par (though the live version of the mediocre “Sixty Years On” is definitely better than the studio one). There’s a cover of the Stones’ “Honkey Tonk Women” that just MIGHT be unnecessary! But the opening blast of “Take Me To Pilot” kicks all sorts of piano-rocking ass, and the 18 minute “Burn Down the Mission/Jam Session” is insanely fun and exciting. Elton and co. are such notorious hit-makers, that most people probably associate the act solely with lush and over-dubby recordings. But this is a stripped down three-piece raw live rock record, and it does really ROCK (even if there’s no electric guitar – only piano). It might not change someone’s mind about Elton, but it’s certainly a good argument that we must draw a line in the sand between “Classic-Era” Elton, and the old schlock queen everyone has come to know.
MADMAN ACROSS THE WATER (1971)
A major step in the wrong direction. I don’t know what it is about this record that makes it seem so much worse than “Tumbleweed.” In a sense, the previous album represents all of the BEST qualities of John and Taupin, and this one all of the WORST. It’s way more serious and less focused, with some major lyrical gaffes, and even the production seems lacking – the drum sound is suddenly thin and lacking oomph. Some of the songs are obviously holdovers from Tumbleweed’s country vibe, and some move in a more heavily orchestrated almost progressive direction. There’s also a lot less variety on this as far as the instrumentation and vocals – it’s probably the most boring early Elton record. That being said….Side A is pretty damn solid. “Tiny Dancer” is legendary at this point (thanks Cameron Crowe), and opens the record with a dramatic and very memorable set of hooks. The burgeoning Elton falsetto takes center stage on this chorus, and would now become a trademark. “Levon” is a good and catchy gospel ballad, but more serious and dated sounding than similar songs on the previous album. I’ve grown to really like “Razor Face,” which sounds like everything else on here, but also has some very distinct melodic ideas and a great vocal. The title track is probably the best song on the album – a lurching and dark and more-complex -than- usual number, almost proggy in its scope. It’s very unique in the Elton catalog. Side B, however, almost entirely sucks. “Indian Sunset” is quite possibly the most offensive Taupin lyric of the “classic era,” and that INCLUDES “Jamaican Jerk-Off!” And the song itself is so overblown and fake sounding, it foreshadows the lame musical theater hack inside of Elton WAY earlier than I would like to admit. When he sings “peace to this young warrior comes with a bullet hole,” it pretty much sounds exactly like “The Lion King.” A terrible song, and an overlong toxic stain that infects the entire album. How could they be so tasteless!!?? I like “Holiday Inn” – it’s a nice breather from the rest of the record, and the arrangment takes some entertaining turns with that mandolin. “Rotten Peaches” is just a worse re-write of “Country Comfort,” and “All The Nasties” is totally forgettable and lifeless. The ending song fragment “Goodbye” leaves no impression. This is a huge step down from “Tumbleweed,” and though Side A is an essential part of Elton legacy, I think it’s one of the worst early Elton albums as a whole.
HONKY CHATEAU (1972)
The one with “Rocket Man” on it, and that’s one of the best pop songs ever cut! Of course, it’s easily the highlight. For the rest of the album, we’re sort of back in “Tumbleweed” country territory, and we’re definitely a step away from the orchestrated seriousness of “Madman” – this really just sounds like the epitome of early 70s Elton, minus the strings. There are some other good songs – “Honky Cat” is a fun rollicking opener with great piano playing, and “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself” an underrated highlight and a rare instance of dark wit in the catalog. I like”Mellow,” but it’s too long. Side 2 opener “Salvation” grew on me a lot, with it’s unpredictable guitar/bass run in the gospel chorus, and an ode to NYC called “Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters” is one of the best ballads the duo ever wrote. The rest of the album is pretty forgettable, particularly a very undistinguished trio of tunes on Side 2 (“Slave,” “Amy,” and “Hercules”). Everything on here goes down easy, though, and there are none of the lapses in taste that mar almost all the other early records save for “Tumbleweed.” The album just sounds so warm and lush and classic – sonically, it’s 70s pop perfection and that atmosphere makes even the weaker songs super enjoyable. It’s one of the best early Elton albums, even if it’s pretty slight and the best songs are the hits.
DON’T SHOOT ME I’M ONLY THE PIANO PLAYER (1973)
You know, I used to think of the classic Elton records as one big consistent highlight. I never realized just how much these records varied in quality. This one is a lot less focused and even lighter than the last couple, and takes Elton into a decidedly more “pop” realm. Gone are the country stylings – gone is any real sense of a “singer-songwriter” album. This is just a light and fluffy 70s pop record, with some solid tunes and a whole lot of filler, all pulled off with utter professionalism. There’s more overt “production” and things can be a bit cornier. The album opens with ‘Daniel,” an Elton classic that I’ve always found cloying and way more soft rock-y than the rest of his hits from this era. It’s a pretty unconvincing way to open a record, too. The melody is nice, but the sappy arrangement lets it down and it’s never been one of my favorites. “Teacher I Need You” is fun pop, and “Elderberry Wine” is a decent mid-level generic Elton tune. The stately “Blues For Baby And Me” is probably the best song on Side A. “Midnight Creeper” is total filler, Elton-by-numbers. The 6 minute “Have Mercy On The Criminal” opens Side B – it’s a blues number, with pedestrian changes, and goes on way too long. There’s some good playing on the track, but it’s pretty boring overall. “I’m Gonna Be A Teenage Idol” is a highlight – the first Elton song that actual DOES sort of sound like part of the glam era. No song epitomizes how much classiness the Taupin-John team has lost since “Tumbleweed Connection” better than “Texan Love Song.” It’s a comedy song, sung from the perspective of a Racist, hippie-hating, gun-toting Redneck. It’s mean spirited and cartoonish, and musically uninteresting, and sounds like these guys have absolutely no real interest in roots music. Basically, we’ve gone from a loving and amazing British interpretation of Americana (“Tumbleweed”) to corny and un-clever pastiche. The last two tracks are very strong, maybe the best two, which is weird sequencing for Elton. “Crocodile Rock” needs no introduction, but it’s a great pop song with an awesome arrangement. And “High Flying Bird” is an underrated epic Elton ballad. This is sort of a throwaway record, but it’s still fun and endearing, and it has some great moments – these guys were operating at the height of their powers in the early-mid 70s, so even their most duffer tracks can be enjoyed for the craftsmanship.
GOODBYE YELLOW BRICK ROAD (1973)
The absolute EPITOME of the “would have been a great single album” syndrome. It’s incredible – almost exactly half of this record goes immediately to the bottom of the classic-era Elton quality pile, and the other half is certainly tied with anything else at the top. Had they cut out the bad songs, this might have been their pop masterpiece. I don’t mind me a messy double album – actually, I think it’s fun to hear an artist at the top of their game going for something super ambitious, even if it results in a bit of filler (see “The White Album” or “The Lamb Lies Down Broadway” or “Quadrophenia” or “Songs In The Key Of Life” or “London Calling” or “Out Of The Blue”). But this album has some TERRIBLE songs on it, unforgivable lapses in taste and melody that shouldn’t have been released even as B-sides. But let’s talk about the good first – the good stuff on here is SO good, it’s helped to secure this record classic status, and convince many to consider it Elton’s best album. Simpy put, tracks 1 – 6 are fucking amazing. “Bennie & The Jets” and the title track, in particular, are possibly Elton’s two best songs ever, and two of the best pop songs ever written by anyone. The title track is positively BEAUTIFUL – one of my all time favorite chord progressions and vocal performances in pop music. But then comes serious trouble – track 7 and the first obvious piece of obnoxious filler – the simply awful “Jamaican Jerk-Off.” When that song comes on, it’s almost like the songwriters are giving us the middle finger – “You thought this was a classic pop record? How about a shitty tasteless reggae pastiche with a terrible melody and Elton singing in a goofy accent? Take that, music lover!” The album never recovers – side 3 is almost totally dull except for “All The Young Girls Love Alice.” “Dirty Little Girl” is so mind-numbingly bad I want to strangle the duo for including it on the same record as the title track. Side 4 picks up a bit – rocker “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” is overplayed but fun – the rest of the songs on that side are forgettable but entertaining. But then awesome ballad “Harmony” makes for a wonderful closer, and it’s probably the overlooked classic on this record. The other noticeable thing about this record are the fantastic guitar tones and playing of Davey Johnstone, who really comes into his own here and gives the proceedings a glammy heavy vibe (it’s hard to remember how truly Bowie-ish was the classic original arrangement of “Candle In The Wind” after it was mangled by Elton for Princess Diana years later). This is an insanely flawed album that is nonetheless still a major highlight of the catalog due to the opening run of legendary tunes. Just stop after “Grey Seal,” tack on “Harmony” at the end, and you’ve got the best 30 minute album this side of “Nashville Skyline.”
Easily the WEIRDEST Elton John album ever made. This one gets tons of flack for being a toss-off, and is generally disregarded as crap save for the singles. But actually, it’s a pretty entertaining little record with a lot of downright strange instrument tones and ideas. There’s more of a “hey, we’re just having a lot of fun!” quality to this album, and you don’t find that on a lot of the often very serious John-Taupin collaborations. The opener, “The Bitch Is Back,” is a better rocker than “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.” Tower of Power adds horns to a lot of these tracks, which works basically exactly how you’d expect it to. After “Bitch” comes a series of slight but fun songs – “Pinky” is an OK ballad, “Grimsby” a really bizarre bouncy little thing with guitar tones out of a 10CC record, and “Dixie Lily” a good country-pastiche (as opposed to the weak ones like “Texan Love Song” and “Roy Rogers”). Then there’s the nonsense lyric “Solar Prestige A Gammon,” which no song will EVER displace as Elton’s all time weirdest. Side 2 opens with “I’ve Seen The Saucers,” which is oddly compelling, but also almost a total failure in the melody department. I don’t know WHAT Elton was thinking with that chorus – it sounds like a mess. But his vocals are pretty awesome on that tune. “Stinker” is a generic blues number, the band “Letting their hair down,” sorta thing – and it sucks. “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” is a ubiquitous but nonetheless jaw-droppingly awesome ballad. One of Elton’s most successful songs, both commercially and artistically. Finally, in case you didn’t find this album weird and disjointed enough, we get the nearly 8 minute “Ticking,” which is mostly just Elton and piano. It’s a long story song about a kid who goes crazy and kills a bunch of people in a bar. It’s interesting, and has some good moments – but overall, not that much of a keeper. So this is a bit of an “off” sounding record, and not really one of Elton’s best, but also underrated and quite enjoyable for most of its running time.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC AND THE BROWN DIRT COWBOY (1975)
Besides “Tumbleweed,” this is almost obviously the most complete sounding album of Elton’s career. It’s not that it contains the best songs so much as it works the best from beginning to end, and sounds very lovingly crafted. There are no throwaways, and the autobiographical/conceptual nature of the lyrics keep it grounded and focused. It may be the pinnacle of Gus Dudgeon’s production, and probably contains Elton’s all-time best singing. The centerpiece is the hit, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” truly an amazing epic piece of 70s song-craft. From the production to the singing to the writing to the harmonies – everything about that song rules, and it’s nearly 7 minutes long! It’s one of Elton’s best, without a doubt – when the drums kick in unexpectedly in verse 2, it’s pop genius. It’s the best song here, but there aren’t any bad ones either. The title track works more as a fanfare, and wouldn’t hold up as well outside of the album context – but it’s got a classy arrangement and warm melodies. “Tower of Babel” has a totally killer hook-filled chorus. The finale, “We All Fall In Love Sometimes/Curtains” is quite bombastic, but the boys pull it off with ease and never sound like they’re overreaching. There’s something about this album that keeps it from classic status for me – it doesn’t really have enough great songs, and at times uses arrangements that sound a little, dare-I-say, cheesy (“Writing,” “Tell Me When The Whistle Blows”). But it’s one of Elton’s best full statements, and an essential part of his catalog.
ROCK OF THE WESTIES (1975)
The most underrated Elton record. Everyone seems to describe this is as a lightweight toss-off, but it’s actually his most rocking album ever and therefore sort of essential listening. One thing marks this album as the beginning of the end though: Elton fired his amazing backing band (except for Johnstone). Why he would do such a thing, I have no idea – but based on this album, I’m guessing it’s because he thought the old guys didn’t rock hard enough. Because almost this entire record is chugging dirty commercial 70s hard rock, sort of in a Stones vein, sometimes in a kinda Skynyrd or Nugent vein. It’s very fun and entertaining, and pretty consistent (though Side B gets a bit tedious, and includes one awful tune – more on that in a second). It’s basically a more successful “Caribou” with a rock edge. The opening Medley is a highlight, with some awesome melodies and playing. I love that fast coda! “Dan Dare” is a very funny and memorable weirdo-rocker. Hit single “Island Girl” is incredibly stupid, even for Elton and Bernie, but also very catchy. “Grow Some Funk Of Your Own” is too generic for my tastes, but it has some catchy bits. And the one ballad, “I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford,” is another in a line of sweeping and beautiful Elton stunners. It’s one of the best he ever wrote. Side B gets weird – two WAY overlong but decent groovy rockers (“Street Kids” and “Hard Luck Story”), the very well-executed, energetic, and creative Bo Diddly-beat rocker “Billy Bones And The White Bird,” and the grooving 70s disco-soul number “Feed Me” which happens to be…TERRIBLE. Seriously one of the worst Elton songs in the classic era, if not THE worst. That chorus is so stupid – ugh. But “Feed Me” aside, this is a very solid effort.
HERE AND THERE (1976)
This is another live album – though it’s really two separate live albums. I listened to the double disc expanded edition from the 90s, which includes the live performances with John Lennon at Madison Square Garden (supposedly Lennon’s last recorded performance). The first disc is a very safe and dull set of Elton standards. No surprises – there are more “Tumbleweed Connection” songs than I’d expected though, and that’s a good thing of course! The second disc is much better (that’s the show at Madison Square Garden), and has some genuinely awesome performances on it. The live version of “Daniel” on this disc is better than the studio version! And it’s really nice to hear the band do “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.” The Lennon portion is actually pretty dull – they do “Whatever Gets You Through The Night,” the duet from “Walls and Bridges” – that song sucks on the Lennon album, and now it sucks on the live Elton one. This record is pretty useless to me in general.
BLUE MOVES (1976)
This is REALLY misunderstood. I’ve seen lots of people completely write this one off, and I can understand why they might be tempted to do so. Simply, this is not a very hook-filled record, and Elton generally lives and dies by his hooks. It’s a much more somber and session-player sounding album than the previous record, but what it lacks in catchiness and energy it makes up with consistency and ambition. Plus, it’s a grower – the songs may seem like worse versions of earlier Elton tunes at first, but they gradually reveal some serious strengths. The playing is great on it. There are also some things Elton had never attempted before or after this record like fusion instrumentals and extremely depressing songs. The album opens (after a fun little fanfare instrumental) with the very long orchestrated half-instrumental, half ballad “Tonight.” The lyrics were apparently about Bernie’s failing relationship. This is quite a statement to make as an opener on an Elton John album, especially coming on the heels of the upbeat “Rock of The Westies.” It’s long and depressing, with no back-beat and little hooks. It’s not amazing, but I can appreciate the brave attempt at such a sorrowful atmosphere. I really enjoy the next track, “One Horse Town,” which opens with a guitar line and string arrangement that sounds downright EVIL. It’s probably the most menacing thing on any Elton record. “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” is the only well-known song on here, and it’s quite beautiful. The rest of the record is solid and like I said, grows on you. This is the end of an era too – say goodbye to Dudgeon and Taupin, say goodbye to the old exciting pop genius version of Elton John. Because right around the corner was the Elton everyone’s come to know – a boring generic hack craftsman.
AS FAR AS I’M CONCERNED, EVERYTHING ELTON DID AFTER “BLUE MOVES” SHOULD BE CONSIDERED PART OF ANOTHER ERA. IN TRUTH, ELTON IN THE 70s WAS A BAND, THE WAY THE ALICE COOPER BAND WAS WAY MORE THAN JUST ALICE. YOU HAD DUDGEON, TAUPIN, DEE ON BASS, AND NIGEL ON DRUMS. THROW DAVEY JOHNSTONE IN THERE, THOUGH EVEN HE WASN’T AS CRUCIAL AN INGREDIENT. EVEN THOUGH THE LINEUP STARTED TO FRACTURE ON “ROCK OF THE WESTIES,” THE TWO YEAR BREAK AFTER “BLUE MOVES” AND THE SUBSEQUENT “A SINGLE MAN” ALBUM REVEAL THAT POST-1976, ELTON HAS LOST HIS TEAM. THEY CAME BACK TO HIM IN VARIOUS FORMATIONS THROUGH THE YEARS, BUT THEY WERE ALL ESSENTIALLY REUNIONS, AND THE INITIAL INSPIRING EARLY 70s RECORDS WERE NEVER EQUALED. SO I’M ONLY GIVING THE REST OF THE CATALOG A CURSORY LISTEN, WITHOUT GRADES.
THOM BELL SESSIONS (1979)
Elton goes all Hall & Oates on us here, hooking up Philadelphia producer Thom Bell for an EP of tracks that would have sounded better with a real soul singer. After he heard the initial mixes, Elton scrapped the plans for the complete album, and this stuff never got released except as an archives EP. Smart decision – this is mostly unbearably light and corny and dated. It would have been disastrous as his first post-Taupin/Dudgeon album. It sort of sounds like a pre-Quincy Jones Michael Jackson album, but Elton’s voice is horribly suited for this kind of material. The hooks are professional, the production very slick and tight, but this is obviously just late-70s commercial tripe and has nothing to do with the man’s 70s pop genius legacy. Worth a listen for the curious, just to hear the attempt at a new genre.
A SINGLE MAN (1978)
Elton’s first post-Taupin, post-Dudgeon album is a dated, dorky, decidedly lackluster affair that represents a giant step down in quality and taste. It’s not a completely bad record, and there are still some hooks. And it’s way better than some of the things to come. But Elton has adapted an extremely lightweight pop style, very much in line with commercial singer-songwriter and soft rock sounds of the late 70s. The single, “Part-Time Love” is perhaps the corniest song Elton had put his name behind to date (well, he DID release “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” but at least that was just a single – and it’s catchier than this one). And the album ends with an extremely dull 6 minute near-instrumental. The highlights include the fun Dr. John-esque “Big Dipper,” and the pretty pseudo-gospel opener “Shine On Through.” “Madness” is at least shooting for something more epic and dark, but it doesn’t quite work due to the glossy atmosphere. Elton’s singing isn’t all that great here either, and he misses Dudgeon’s production. Overall, this is the first truly mediocre record he put out. The start of a trend.
VICTIM OF LOVE (1979)
A famously bad album, and the most maligned record of Elton’s career. But let’s not go crazy – it’s a disco album, Elton didn’t play or write one note, and it’s 35 minutes long. So it was almost certainly intended as a fun side project for him, even if I can’t confirm that fact. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a disco album in 1980 – it’s sort of a sub-Moroder kinda thing, never letting the beat drop, the hooks repeated and repeated, the production schlocky and dated. It’s more enjoyable than most of Elton’s later adult contemporary crap, but if I were a fan in 1980 awaiting a return to the quality of only a couple albums ago, I would probably consider this a travesty as well. Elton sounds pretty unconvinced, and his particular vocal qualities aren’t even used here – you could replace his voice with a generic disco singer and come out with the exact same record. “Spotlight” is sort of a highlight, but everything is essentially the same. The album opens with an 8 minute “Johnny B. Goode” disco cover – a dumb novelty idea if there ever was one!
21 AT 33 (1980)
Back to normal, and Elton even brought back his old rhythm section.Taupin returns for a couple songs. But this is just another mediocrity, with boring production and weak hooks. Elton’s singing is starting to sound like his 80s/90s voice (not a good thing), the songs are lifeless, and the sounds are getting a bit too 80s already. There are a couple minor highlights: “White Lady White Powder” has the closest thing to a classic sounding Elton hook, and “Take Me Back” is cute and well-sung. The rest ranges from rip-offs of his better songs (“Little Jeannie” sounds exactly like a shittier “Daniel”), really boring filler (“Give Me The Love,” “Never Fall In Love”), and rockers with absolutely no bite whatsoever (“Chasing The Crown”). Did Elton care at this point? Or had his gifts just truly deserted him? This album is so irrelevant that it might as well not exist – I bet if it and it’s memory were wiped off the face of Earth right now, no one would even notice, Elton included.
THE FOX (1981)
How mediocre can Elton possibly get at this point? Parts of this album are just obviously poor and embarrassing. But mostly it’s professionally crafted and utterly dull mediocrity. Nothing interesting going on here at all – no interesting melodies, playing, production, singing or lyrics (except the lyrics of the openly gay, “Elton’s Song”). The only real highlight is the “Chloe” section of the long suite that opens Side 2 – but the first parts of that suite are totally dreadful instrumental fake-classical schlock, with a particularly egregious synth section. This is one of Elton’s least popular records, having sold badly and containing no real hits to speak of. Well, though it certainly doesn’t sound even close to a lost classic, it doesn’t seem PARTICULARLY worse than the previous album. Just a bit less distinguished (and that album was already close to faceless). Let’s see – opener “Breaking Down Barriers” is totally lame and unmemorable but at least has a semi-neat keyboard riff. “Heart In The Right Place” is basically a generic blues song with some synthesized vocals. “Just Like Belgium” sounds like bad ABBA. “Nobody Wins” is a HORRENDOUS synth-pop 80s crap-fest that Elton didn’t even write. “Fascist Faces” and the title track are the other two decent tracks, next to “Chloe.” But none of them are going to come close to changing your life, let alone your 4 minutes.
JUMP UP! (1982)
A pleasant surprise, and a big step up! Or should I say, a big jump up! Or should I just shut the fuck up? This is Elton’s best record since “Blue Moves,” and though it isn’t in the same range of brilliance as the classics, it’s still a totally respectable record for a “dinosaur” to have put out in 1982. The guys sound inspired on this one, and Elton’s hooks are suddenly peaking once again above the abyss of generic mediocrity. There are definitely some duds and lapses in taste, but overall, this is a really nice record. The opening run of songs is the best: “Dear John” and “Spiteful Child” are both catchy and energetic, “Ball and Chain” is a fun swinging country-tinged tune, and “Legal Boys” has a ferocity not seen on an Elton record in years. That’s another defining characteristic of this album – even though it’s still insanely poppy, there’s a little BITE back in the game. The most famous track, “Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)” was a tribute to Lennon, and it’s quite possibly Elton’s best post-classic-era tune. It sounds like something he could have written and played back in his prime, with a bit more 80s polish. I won’t mention the low points – they’re all over the place in Elton’s career at this point, so let’s just focus on the positives shall we!? So far, this is the one to go to if you want to investigate Elton beyond the essentials.
TOO LOW FOR ZERO (1983)
This was Elton’s “big” 80s album, the one with the ubiquitous soft-rock singles “I’m Still Standing” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues.” Both songs are extremely catchy and well written, though “Blues” is so corny it hurts. “Standing” is a really strong single for Elton at this point, especially since the hook could certainly be taken as personal statement for a washed up artist in 1983 (I’m looking at YOU, Reggie). The rest of the album, though, is mediocre and too polished and radio-friendly 80s. The classic lineup was reunited, without Dudgeon (instead we get the amazing Chris Thomas, who doesn’t do anything amazing on this record unfortunately). The title track is pleasant but overlong, “Whipping Boy” gets the pulse going a bit though it’s unmemorable, and there’s a great Elton falsetto vocal performance in otherwise cheesy “One More Arrow.” The other single “Kiss The Bride” is hideous. Overall, this is boring product with a couple good singles, but per usual the good singles elevated the whole show for most critics and fans. So this has a better reputation than the albums surrounding it. But don’t buy it – this one is just as utterly disposable as the rest and a jump down from Jump Up!
BREAKING HEARTS (1984)
Holy moly, is this generic. I can’t remember one thing that just happened on this entire record – the songs were playing, that’s for sure, and Elton was singing. He sounds rough and rocking on opener “Restless,” though the song itself is garbage. The title track is a depressing ballad, and perked my ears up for a brief moment before it faded away forever. “In Neon” has some nice classic sounding vocal harmonies. “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” is a lame and not catchy single. Actually, this is a non-album. It’s so irrelevant it doesn’t even exist. I have no idea why anyone would ever want to hear this album after the tour it was supporting ended.
ICE ON FIRE (1985)
Jesus Christ! Here in 1985 we find Elton and Bernie passing “mediocre” on their way to the unredeemable 80s rock star shit-can, and coming pretty close to simply “terrible.” First of all, this is their first REALLY 80s sounding record – bad dated synths, ugly drum sounds, synth horns etc. And this was Gus Dudgeon’s return to the team! What were these guys thinking? The material on this record is consistent in one way – it’s consistently bad. Like with the previous album, I can’t remember a note of this, and my only reflections after hearing it are that it sounded like crap, the songs were dull and corny, and not one musical or recording idea was remotely interesting or innovative. The only plus side to this is that Elton’s voice is still sort of working in his 70s range – we don’t get the ridiculous baritone-isms of albums still to come. But that tone does start to creep in a bit on songs like “Shoot Down The Moon.” Highlights? I thought the opener “This Town” and “Tell Me What The Papers Say” were both a bit OK. But not really. I’m told “Nikita” was a hit. I couldn’t tell it apart from anything else, so I can’t say why it was chosen as a single. Avoid this one, folks.
LEATHER JACKETS (1986)
This, along with “Victim of Love” is routinely panned as Elton’s worst album ever. But frankly, it’s not any better or worse than “Ice On Fire.” It may even be a bit better – the title track at least has a bit of energy. I wish I could say people are missing out on these 80s Elton John albums – that he was written off as a schlockmeister and a has-been due to some corny hit singles, but the albums contained some real gems that harkened back to the classic days. But I can’t say it. These albums are worthless, ugly, and utterly unconvincing. The taste factor is unbearably low, the performances rote and lame. We’re dealing with a washed up one-time brilliant artist, whose muse has apparently left him, or he just isn’t looking very hard for her anymore. And perhaps some damaging substance abuse was taking effect, or perhaps Elton just wasn’t made for these times. But whatever the case – this run of albums SUCKS. I look at the title of the followup, and cross my fingers – but at least it’s good to know Elton himself knew this to be a slump.
REG STRIKES BACK (1988)
Well, Reg really DOES strike back with this release! Unfortunately, he’s bouncing back from the worst period of his career, and his spring doesn’t take him even close to this 70s heights. But this is a pretty respectable record – it’s not going to change anyone’s life, and none of these songs are anything more than moderately listenable. Dudgeon is gone now, and the production is way less obnoxious and dated. It’s clearly still an 80s record, but that’s more due to the overall sound than obviously DOA choices such as synth horns. There’s even a strong and catchy lead single in “I Don’t Want To Go On With You Like That!” There are also some songs that hint at new pastures, and sometimes it even sounds like Elton is TRYING. “Heavy Traffic” is a highlight with it’s doo-wop inspired vocals, and opener “Town of Plenty” has a fun and goofy pub-rock keyboard riff. There’s even a “sequel” to “Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters.” The lyrics of that one are pretty silly, but the song has a bit of the ol’ energy and a decent hook. This record reminds me of a lesser version of a post-peak Elvis Costello album – basically for fans only, but if you’ve ever truly loved Elton in the past, you’ll be sure to at least respect the CRAFTSMANSHIP on here.
SLEEPING WITH THE PAST (1989)
I read a quote from Bernie Taupin where he describes this as the duo’s “best record yet.” You’d think the thing would sound a tiny bit more inspired. Instead, this is where the REAL 90s cheese-meister Elton starts to rear his ugly head. Up to now, he really hadn’t revealed himself fully as adult-contemporary artist – just a bad 80s pop act (after being a genius 70s one). But this album has a couple songs that are CLEARLY “adult-pop” tracks – “Whispers” and hit single “Sacrifice.” Anyway, it’s not a bad record, and the soul and R&B and doo-wop influences are pretty fun (the guys claim this was a tribute to their favorite old soul records). I can’t really remember anything on here, but they do go for a very specific atmosphere and the record feels focused. And of course it’s well crafted and professionally written – just generic and dull. It’s hard to say much more about it – Elton’s voice is sounding way lower, there are some bluesier moments – in the end it’s just another product from the factory.
THE ONE (1992)
After one of his longest ever breaks, during which he apparently got sober, Elton returned in 1992 with this album. And yep it sounds exactly like an ugly overlong early 90s album, with instantly dated drum programming and synth sounds. When the album started playing, I actually thought it was going to be a step up – “Simple Life” has an endearing R&B groove, and the title track is catchy and includes vocal harmonies right out the 70s. Those two are not great by ANY means, but they could have been at home among the moderately pleasant “Reg Strikes Back” tracks. There are some piano and organ solos on the record too, which make for a nice change of pace – it’s great to hear Elton actually PLAYING. But somewhere along the way things turn REALLY sour, and after those first two tracks, pretty much the whole rest of the album is dreadfully boring and overextended. Dorky middle-aged “adult-pop” choices abound, such as bad 90s Clapton guitar soloing, soft-rock keyboard sounds and pads, message songs, and two songs about lady troubles with “women” in the title (though by this point, I’m pretty sure Elton’s homosexuality was very well publicized…thanks a lot Bernie!!!). “Sweat it Out” is a nearly 7 minute piece of garbage. I can’t really remember anything else, and I just listened to it – this mostly sounds like totally generic background music, with Elton’s low vocal register lacking any of the charisma of his youth. Boo!
You know, when it comes right down to it, this might be the worst overall record Elton has ever released. I’m putting in my vote. And granted, it’s barely got any new Elton compositions on it at all – either the guests contributed material, or they’re singing covers, or covers of old Elton tunes (like the live “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” with George Michael). But this is SO lame, so unbelievably corny and self-congratulatory and obnoxious. And it’s over an hour long! A double album! The singing is mostly totally perfunctory – barely any of these vocalists actually adds any unique personality to the proceedings – Elton pretty much picked the most bland group of people imaginable (k.d. land, PM Dawn, Don Henley, Nik Kershaw). There are some iconic names too, but only Leonard Cohen’s track is any fun. You’d think a duet between Elton and Little Ritchard would at least ATTEMPT some sort of classic rock and roll fury – instead it’s a mid-tempo 7 minute self-help song about walking on with “The Power.” Everything on here is so polite and lightweight and over-polished (in an even worse early 90s way than the previous record). It’s crap – never listen to it, let it rot.
MADE IN ENGLAND (1995)
A step up! Paul Buckmaster returns for some giant cinematic orchestrations, the sounds are generally pretty organic, there are some moderately successful attempts at rocking out (the title track is probably the best song on here), and everybody sounds professional and properly boring. And all the titles except the title track’s are ONE WORD! How’s THAT for poetry?? Todd Rundgren did a similar thing on one of his latter day pieces of shit – I guess once great minds think alike! Anyway…as before, the album is too long, gets incredibly samey as it runs on, and presents nothing in the vicinity of fresh or creative for Elton and Bernie. Except for the one world title thing. But as we’ve seen, their late-period craftsmanship can be way worse, and this is probably one of of their better post-peak records. Other highlights include country-tinged “Latitude,” and over-the-top but pretty “Belfast.” The most well known song off the album is the lame “adult-pop” song, “Blessed,” which has provided soundtrack fodder for many a Bar Mitzvah photo montage. One thing must be said in this album’s defense: this was Elton’s first record after his gigantic success with “THE LION KING” soundtrack. He very easily could have made something way more schlocky and stupid than this album, which does show a little bit of work went into it, and that it was supposed to sound sort of like a classic-era record. Do you ever need to listen to this? Absolutely not. But if for some bizarre reason it happens to be in your Mom’s car CD changer, and your other options are “Yanni Live,” “Hairspray Broadway Soundtrack,” something by “Michael Buble,” or “Barry Manilow’s Greatest Hits,” you’d be in relative SEVENTH HEAVEN choosing this record.
THE BIG PICTURE (1997)
Dear Elton, Bernie, And Chris Thomas:
What the hell is the matter with you guys? Didn’t Chris produce “Never Mind The Bollocks?” Didn’t Elton and Bernie write “Burn Down The Mission?” Do you people have any consideration for the legacy of this musical act or its fan-base? Why are you delivering the schmaltziest and most muzak-inspired record of Elton’s career in 1997, when you are all already rich and famous? Have you even listened to this album? It opens with 5 soft-pop adult-contemporary crap-fests in a row! You put the only two moderately OK tracks in the middle of the record – the corny but catchy single “Something About The Way You Look Tonight” and the title track, which is BY FAR the best thing on here, even if it’s just mediocre – and then made me wade through 4 more terrible non-songs. Did you know that two of these song titles are: “Love’s Got a Lot To Answer For” and “I Can’t Steer My Heart Clear of You?” How could you? What’s with those keyboard tones guys? Don’t you know OK COMPUTER came out this year? You dorks! You absolute dorks! How could you have fallen even FURTHER into cheese-land? How is that even POSSIBLE!!!???? Chris. would you please build a time machine and go back to 97 and at least make this record sound as respectable as “Too Low For Zero” – I’m really not asking for much there.
SONGS FROM THE WEST COAST (2001)
This was heavily promoted as Elton’s return to his 70s sound. Or at least, a return to attempting to make records that everybody could listen to, as opposed to just soccer moms. Elton said he was inspired by (or all people) Ryan Adams, and decided he wasn’t going to make anymore “uneven” records. What the fuck does that mean? I guess he’s actually trying now, and hadn’t been for years? Isn’t that sort of insulting to his fans, who had plopped down their hard earned cash on all those “uneven” records that were promoted as “returns to form” by the insidious and almost always embarrassing and untrustworthy music press? Who knows. They recorded this to analog tape, it’s all warm and stripped down, there are no cheesy synths or any really schmaltzy instrumentation. But nonetheless, it’s still not very magical. There are some moments that make you think of the great Elton records, but they’re fleeting. At least it’s nice to have him going for THIS vibe though. One thing that sticks out immediately – he’s basically lost his voice. It’s so deep and grizzled now! Anyway, the single “I Want Love” is the best thing on here – it sounds like a Jeff Lynne track, with that McCartney-ish bassline and piano figures. And dare I say it: Elton actually hasn’t tried an extremely Beatles-y track like this before. So it’s sort of an innovation for him, even though most people would call a Beatles rip-off track the farthest thing from innovative. Other good ones include “Birds” and maybe “Look Ma No Hands.” But I’m sorry to report that most of it sounds exactly the same, and the songs aren’t very memorable. It’s nice to hear at least once though – a very pleasant record and a definite step up from the last run of albums.
PEACHTREE ROAD (2004)
Sort of following the same pattern as “West Coast” (a return to the rootsier and warmer sounds and melodic ideas from the 70s records), this is actually better in it’s first half, and way worse in it’s second. And Elton’s voice has gone relatively OLD DYLAN on us – listening to him push out the high notes is positively painful. He sounds like a dying cow – he’s totally lost his tone. This starts out as a sort of country concept thing, like a return to “Tumbleweed.” It seems to lose track of that along the way though, until the last song “I Can’t Keep This From You” ends up sounding like Procol Harum (well, just the keyboard line does). It opens nicely though – “Weight of the World” and “Porch Swing in Tupelo” are both solid if totally forgettable numbers. The country stuff is fun to hear return to these guys’ orbit after it’d been totally swallowed up by crappy adult-pop for 20 years. As the album runs on, the songs start to merge into one boring but nice non-song. So this album basically gets the atmosphere as right as can be expected for a 60 year old has-been, but none of these songs are going to survive very long past it’s pressing. There’s also one giant misstep – the stupid chorus for “All That I’m Allowed” is one of the most awful things Elton ever wrote. I’m not sure if this is a step down or up from the previous record – probably a bit of a step down, but at least we’re still staying away from shitty adult-contemporary. Stick with the shitty nostalgic 70s records, Elton!!!
CAPTAIN AND THE KID (2006)
After two records of pretty conscious past-mining, the duo decided to REALLY milk their legacy with a sequel to their classic autobiographical 70s record (“Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy”). Of course, it’s really just a lyrical sequel – the music definitely reaches for some 70s scope and warmth, but until the title track at the end of the record, you’d never know this was supposed to be related somehow to “Captain Fantastic.” It just sounds like the last two records, though actually a bit more “classic.” This is the probably the best evocation of his old sound Elton is going to be able to conjure up at this point – his voice is a mere phantom of what it used to be, and his melodic talents have dwindled to just decent, even when he appears to be trying pretty hard. There are some highlights here: “Tinderbox” is one of the best recent songs by the team, and therefore one of a handful of worthwhile songs in a 20 year period (!). “And The House Fell Down” has got a rollicking piano riff, and sounds like a bit like “Teacher I Need You” from the 70s. It’s great to hear Elton actually playing his piano like he means it. And finally the title track – which starts and ends with the exact intro from the 70s record title track. It’s total nostalgia, but it is definitely a bit magical to hear that theme played again as the boys look back at their careers. The rest is unmemorable but pleasant, just like the previous two albums. There are some embarrassing lyrics and Elton’s voice isn’t covering up for ’em anymore, Bernie!!! Actually, they just make Elton sound ridiculous and washed up. Oh well – he’s pretty old now, and this kind of album is probably the best we can expect from him. And perhaps the story ends here…
THE UNION (WITH LEON RUSSELL) (2010)
I was wrong! This is probably the tastiest Elton-related product since the late 70s. Russell was always a huge influence on Elton’s piano style, and this (overlong) album has them trading off writing, vocal, and playing duties. It’s EXTREMELY refreshing to hear Elton in the studio with a low-key dude like Russell and some other new professional collaborators (T. Bone Burnett produced, Jim Keltner plays drums, Neil Young guests). The piano playing usually takes center stage, and the whole thing goes for a rootsy organic old-school style, even MORESO than did Elton’s previous couple records. You get your gospel, your New Orleans strutting, your Robbie Robertson-isms, and the occasional stately Elton piano ballad…Elton’s vocals are actually sounding stronger than they have in years, and Leon’s are so grizzled they help offset the Broadway-isms Elton and Bernie can’t seem to avoid at this point. Some of this is typically strained melodramatic late-period Elton (“When Love Is Dying”), but even those moments work better than usual due to the strong laid back production and the knowledge that a breezy Leon song should be coming up soon. Also, these gentlemen both destroy on their black and white instruments, so anytime the old farts just shut up and PLAY my enjoyment meter shoots up like a bullet. The piano break in “A Dream Come True” is the best part of the whole record. Taupin continues to rip smelly lyrical farts, but he did that in his prime so I guess it’s to be expected. This shouldn’t replace anyone’s copy of “Tumbleweed Connection,” and I doubt I’ll ever listen to it again – – but it’s a professionally made and excellent sounding set of piano-driven roots music.