Honky Château is the album that established Elton John as a bona fide rock and roll star. His three previous studio albums presented him as a melodically gifted music composer and as a fine singer, but it was with Honky Château that he became a more disciplined and more focused artist. The stately, almost symphonic pop that dominates many of his earlier records gives way here to a warm, light-hearted sound that encompasses a greater variety of musical forms - New Orleans soul, steamy country blues, gospel, and even some doo-wop, all with a solid piano-rock base.
Honky Château takes its title from where it was recorded - namely, the Château d'Hérouville, an old, run-down castle outside Paris with a recording studio that was only in slightly better condition than the rest of the property. The casual atmosphere clearly benefited the music; now working without Paul Buckmaster's grand orchestral arrangements, Elton and producer Gus Dudgeon yielded a simpler, more honest and less pretentious vibe, and it shows in the accomplished playing of guitarist Davey Johnstone, the crisp rhythm section of bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, and the touches of brass and synthesizer lines that provide extra color. But the biggest improvement came from Elton's lyricist, Bernie Taupin. Bernie was now writing lyrics following conventional song form, with clearly defined verses and refrains, more than ever, having abandoned the free-form prose that was evident on the Black Album or on Madman Across the Water. His words are more straightforward here, leaning more toward teen romance, adult love, and American folklore, and his directness is reflected in his one-word titles: "Mellow," "Salvation," "Slave," "Amy," "Hercules." The good news is that Bernie hadn't lost his quirks; the LP's third song, "I Think I'm Going To Kill Myself," is a cheeky parody of teen-angst pop that delivers threats of suicide with a wry smile.
For all this alone, Honky Château is an essential album for causal Elton fans as well as die-hard ones, but three stand-out tracks make it all the more a must-have in any rock record collection - "Honky Cat," the joyous opening song, with its thrill of discovering the big city from the perspective of a country boy; "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters," the somber flip-side of "Honky Cat," with its sensitive ruminations of life in a then-deteriorating New York City and the subtle arrangement of Elton's piano and vocal and Johnstone's mandolin (with an ironic nod to Ben E. King's "Spanish Harlem"), and: the great "Rocket Man," a tale of an astronaut's ennui and dissatisfaction that's one of the most humanistic sets of song lyrics Bernie Taupin has ever written. Elton, backing it with some of his most inspired piano work, sings it with the same sensitivity and care that he brings to his all songwriting partner's lyrics, which reminds us why, as a musician and a singer, he is on par with Elvis Presley or the Beatles. Little wonder, then, that Honky Château would be the first of seven consecutive chart-topping albums in America for Elton within four years.