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Review: Elton John's "The Diving Board"

Elton gets real by ditching the mythology

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Elton John's "The Diving Board"

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The past fifteen years or so have found Captain Fantastic himself, Elton John, trying to reconnect with his muse after a long time spent out in the Disney soundtrack wilderness: first by returning to form with Songs from the West Coast and Peachtree Road, then by revisiting his own past with the sequel The Captain and the Kid, and finally by reuniting with his original musical inspirations on the Leon Russell duet album The Union. Now, however, he's made a real radical break, ditching his band, hooking up with famed Americana producer T-Bone Burnett, and commissioning a very special set of lyrics from longtime partner Bernie Taupin.

 

About this album

  • Release date: September 24, 2013
  • Label: Captiol
  • Catalog number: 001866802
  • Musicians:
    Elton John: lead vocals, piano
    Doyle Bramhall II: guitar
    Raphael Saadiq: bass
    Jay Bellerose: drums
    Larry Goldings: Hammond B-3 organ
    Larry Goldings: keyboards
    George Bohanon, Bruce Fowler, Ira Nepus: trombones
    Darrell Leonard: trumpet, bass trumpet
    Chuck Findley, Darrell Leonard: flugelhorns
    George Bohanon: euphonium, baritone horn
    William Roper: tuba
    Stjepan Hauser, Luka Sulic: cellos
    Jack Ashford: tambourine
    Bill Cantos, Alvin Chea, Carmel Echols, Judith Hill, Perry Morgan, Louis Price, Rose Stone: backing vocals
  • Produced by T-Bone Burnett
  • Vocals arranged by Bill Maxwell
  • Horns arranged by Darrell Leonard
    Engineered by Jason Wormer
    Mastered by Gavin Lurssen
    Art direction by Mat Maitland

Pros

  • For the first time in a long time, perhaps ever, Bernie Taupin's character sketches sound like Elton could have written them.
  • T-Bone Burnett's tasteful production shies away from the orchestral excesses of Elton's other "serious" albums.
  • As a look back on his career and his choices, this album contains more emotional honesty than most of his back catalog.

Cons

  • The tone is not quite bleak, but there's a sense of decay here that may not thrill fans who love Elton for, say, "Crocodile Rock."
  • "Mexican Vacation" alone sounds as strident in its optimism as Elton's '90s work.

My review

Elton John's status as a pop music kingpin of the '70s and '80s cannot be denied, but his public musical persona's never been what you might call transparent; like his famously outrageous stage outfits, Elton's best work has always been buried under a layer of florid characterization courtesy of his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin. Despite what the radio's been telling you for the past half century, Elton is not himself a rocket man, a madman, or a honky cat (much less a giant pinball wizard or a Philly soul man). Occasionally Bernie hit on something universal, as in "Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word" or "Your Song," or accidentally bumped up against Elton's real life ("The Bitch Is Back," "Philadelphia Freedom"), but John's best albums really stand out: they're uncommonly lyrically lucid, capturing a moment of emotional complexity (Rock of the Westies), historical weight (Tumbleweed Connection), and/or actual personal authenticity (Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy). He's the consummate entertainer, and a pure pop machine, but he's always best when he singing for something.

His 30th studio album -- yes, it's been that long -- is by turns emotional, historical, and personal, but that doesn't make it his best. Elton stopped swinging for the fences long ago, free of the stress of trying to compete with the pop music community. There's nothing on his new album as immediate as "Bennie and the Jets" or "Tiny Dancer." But his new status as comfortable icon has ironically given his last decade of albums an intimacy he used to merely indicate; while new producer T-Bone Burnett has refocused Elton by changing out the band and stripping down the arrangements, it's Elton whose refocused Bernie -- this is probably the first time he actually sent Taupin back to the well during recording, realizing there was a honest-to-goodness emotional theme emerging.

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