Sunday, May 15, 2016

Elton John (1970)

The late radio personality Robert W. Morgan once opined that, as Elvis was to the fifties, and as the Beatles were to the sixties, Elton John was to the seventies.  While I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment, it's worth noting that there's one key difference between Elton and his predecessors.  Unlike Elvis or the Beatles, who stormed into the realm of popular music and redefined it on their own terms, Elton walked into it in a polite, dignified matter with a style that broke no new ground.  While Elvis rattled listeners with the electricity of "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Hound Dog" and the Beatles offered up propelled rock and roll with the immediacy of "Please Please Me," "She Loves You," and "I Want To Hold Your Hand,"  Elton crooned "Your Song," a light piano tune that couldn't even be considered what is today called a power ballad.  Some of the words in "Your Song" even suggest a sense of ambivalence ("But then again, no;" "anyway, the thing is . . .").  But the politeness of Elton's music hid a burning intensity that was key to his success.
Elton John, usually called the Black Album for the dark backdrop of the sleeve, is Elton's second studio album.  Though somewhat conventional even by the standards of the early seventies, for a sophomore effort this album is an incredible work that reflects Elton's desire not just to make it as a star but to dominate every conceivable form of popular music he loved - that is, all of it.  Bear in mind that, after leaving Long John Baldry's Bluesology backup band three years earlier to go solo, he'd already done session work and cut three singles and a whole LP (Empty Sky) without success in Britain before he was given one last chance to save his recording contract and went ahead with this record.  Ironically, as his first U.S. release, it became his commercial breakthrough in America after it enjoyed only mild success in his home country.  Elton approaches his music and the lyrics written by his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin with more than mere studio competence; he elevates it to defiant statement for his place in a new, post-Beatles musical era.  Soon he would be on top in this era.  
"Your Song" opens the Black Album with a vulnerability that paradoxically exudes confidence, separating it from the mush-headed love songs that would define the hit singles of the 1970s, and the album becomes richer and more intricate as it proceeds, from the lyrical nakedness of "I Need You To Turn To" to the medieval fantasy of "The King Must Die," the closing cut.  Elton's melodies and Bernie's lyrics are backed by a crack session band, Gus Dudgeon's tasteful production, and arranger Paul Buckmaster's enveloping orchestral arrangements, which allow Elton to convincingly go from gospel in "Border Song" to childlike innocence in "The Greatest Discovery," a paean to the birth of a younger brother.  Elton even excels at country blues with "No Shoes Strings On Louise," the album's only non-orchestrated track.  But while Elton is focused and disciplined in his quest for world domination, Bernie Taupin -  clearly responding to a bar raised by the Beatles and Bob Dylan - goes off the deep end with his lyrics and occasionally creates random images that ultimately mean nothing.  Taupin's pretentiousness - soon to be tempered - keeps the Black Album from being great as opposed to good.  But when he drops his pretenses and produces a lyric to sing along to, he and Elton are unstoppable.
No single moment on the Black Album compares to "Take Me To the Pilot," an explosive cut of symphonic rock that displayed Elton's capability to reach the heights would eventually conquer. Delivering one of Bernie Taupin's more interesting sets of lyrics to searing guitars and punchy drums - and complemented by a classical orchestra handled by Buckmaster with all the deftness of Stokowski - Elton makes his mark with a declaration of determination: He's in this for the long haul.  After years of laboring in session work and the supper-club circuit,  young Reginald Dwight is now Elton John, a force to be reckoned with.

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