Words and music.
Not only did that recipe become Eddie Wilson’s reason for living in the 1983 film Eddie and the Cruisers, but it has also served as the modus operandi of Elton John and Bernie Taupin since initially joining forces back in 1969.
Their opening statement, Empty Sky, sowed the seeds of greatness early on despite not producing a single track worthy of revisiting. John was still flying by the seat of his pants artistically and Taupin had yet to find his comfort zone as a poet capable of synthesizing the static with the mercurial to create something truly profound.
Nonetheless, the potential was evident, and, by the next year, they would have a bona fide smash on their hands in the form of, Your Song, an immortal ballad that wears its emotions on its sleeve while Taupin’s protagonist professes love to someone who is destined to leave the world in a better place than when they found it.
44 years and more than 30 albums later, the pair continues to plumb the depths of their collective soul in pursuit of the perfect melody.
Their latest release, The Diving Board, is easily the most exciting thing either has done in quite some time, because it’s all about utilizing T. Bone Burnett’s bare bones production to hearken back to the days when John was the maestro of piano-based compositions.
Forget the theatrical swagger of The Lion King or the cutesiness of Gnomeo and Juliet. This is an adult endeavor rich with drama and sophisticated phrasing reminiscent of John’s finest work of the 1970s. The lower register he began singing with on 1978’s A Single Man appears to have gotten even lower, which makes his voice almost unrecognizable in the early going.
Oceans Away kicks things off with a steely intro designed to remind the listener just how much they’ve missed hearing real music emanate from their speakers. It’s not exactly Someone Saved My Life Tonight, but, given the Top-40 alternative, we’ll accept it with open arms.
Oscar Wilde Gets Out and Can’t Stay Alone Tonight, however, are quintessential John/Taupin ditties likely to satisfy those fans partial to the later era, because they possess a bounce in their step contradictory to the rest of the album’s overcast Warren Zevon vibe. The latter takes a stylistic cue from I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues, which, if you’re going to borrow from someone, who better than yourself, am I right?
The true keepers in this collection are My Quicksand and Voyeur, because neither sounds as if Hollywood was breathing down his neck to deliver another maudlin piece of audience manipulation. These are emotionally naked gems that stand as close to his classics as he’s able to get at this point in his career, and his angelic touch on the piano retains its ability to pierce the aorta and linger there for days on end.
I can see why Home Again and Mexican Vacation (Kids in the Candlelight) were released as the first two singles, because they’re the most innocuous entries into the equation. If you close your eyes while listening to Home Again, you can picture one of Disney’s animated creatures journeying across Africa after being separated from its family during a stampede.
What stands out most following my multiple intakes of The Diving Board is that Elton John remains a vibrant performer who hasn’t forgotten how to make records of consequence, something his recent residency in Vegas cast doubt upon for many.
Is it perfect? No, but, in an era dominated by autotune and self-aggrandizement gone awry, it’s nice to know that words and music can still make you feel something other than nostalgia for the way the industry used to be.
If you’ve been with Elton John from the beginning, you’ll be pleased to know that he hasn’t abandoned you yet, and, if you haven’t, I’m sure you’ll find something precious enough to warrant a spot in your iTunes library.
Either way, The Diving Board is a welcome addition to the John/Taupin catalog.