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23 Oct 2010

The Master Expertises (III): Liz Rosenthal

Let’s get one thing straight. The Union is not a “comeback” album, a “swan song,” a last gasp, or a crass commercial exercise. It’s not a misguided effort at authenticity, or only 50% good (based on who you’re a fan of), or too ballad-heavy, or not piano-driven enough. It is what it is, and what it is, is a joyous collaboration between two giants of popular music, one who faded from the limelight but never lost his inspiration, and one who’s been in the limelight almost continuously for 40 years and, likewise, has not lost his inspiration.

How can you not love the premise behind The Union? What a great reason to make an album – to return a musical idol to public attention and appreciation, as well as solvency. And true to form, Elton didn’t try to dictate how the songwriting or the recording should turn out. He didn’t try to make Leon into something he isn’t. But dictating a creative outcome also would have been against Elton’s natural inclination to defer to the talent of others, to afford colleagues free rein to do what they do best. Were Elton so inclined to be a meddler, though, it would have been a curious exercise given the influence Leon has had on Elton’s melodic and pianistic styles. (Reflecting on the halcyon days of 1970-72, one realizes how much of Leon’s down-home, funky vocal phrasings Elton adapted to his own creative sensibilities. Elton’s singing on “Can I Put You On?,” “The Cage,” and even “Honky Cat” are tips of the hat to Leon’s inspiration.)

This project, then, works so well one is tempted to think that Leon might have written Elton’s songs and Elton Leon’s songs, although the first track, “If it wasn’t for Bad,” would have been one of the quirkier efforts Elton has ever pulled off. (Though he’s been known to be quirky. Think “Madman” or “Better Off Dead” or, yes, “Bennie and the Jets.”) The point is that our two heroes, who have been dubbed the “Master and the Rocket Man,” are among the most obvious of duos that have never happened until now. Looking back on some of Elton’s other collaborators, one is almost painfully reminded of what could have been, and been a lot sooner, if Elton hadn’t gotten sidetracked by certain other people. Eric Clapton? Too much wailing guitar. Billy Joel? Too New York schtick. George Michael? Too stuck on marijuana.

The thing is, even if Leon is known for southern rock, only the uninitiated (or perhaps willfully ignorant) assume that this sort of music is alien to Elton. Even if Leon leans toward country, we know that Elton has featured, more often than not, at least one country track on every album he’s released since the beginning. Even if Leon incorporates jazz riffs in his playing, anyone with at least one working ear drum knows that jazz forms are second nature to Elton. Even if Leon shows an affinity for secular gospel, Elton does, too, from “Border Song” to “Where’s the Shoorah?” to the latest live piano intro to “Take Me to the Pilot,” and beyond. Soul? Sure. Sad balladry? Certainly. Love songs? Ditto.

Today, in The Union, when Elton and Leon sing on each other’s songs (or just supply backing vocals on the other’s tunes), their voices complement each other. Leon sounds like a rough-edged, down-on-his-luck Willie Nelson. He can express the essence of a melody convincingly despite his lack of a conventional singing voice. Conversely, the power, richness, and tonal flexibility of Elton’s vocals have progressed so dramatically since Reg rendered a boyish, tinny sound to “Come Back Baby” that it’s hard to see how he can ever interpret a rocker or a ballad any better than he does now. Thus, Leon takes the vulnerable, weathered, uncertain side of a song, while Elton comforts or provides backbone, as the case may be.

The different voices of the Master and the Rocket Man blend to afford any given song an alternate perspective. But these two must have their significant differences, mustn’t they? Well, yes. Elton almost never writes his own words. Leon does. And Leon’s thick, lustrous, flowing hair demonstrates more follicular fortune than Elton has ever enjoyed. In fact, each musician’s dramatically different capacity for hair production could be said to symbolically illustrate the difference in their personas. Leon, generally media shy, seems hidden behind a mask; Elton is out there for everybody to see, all the time, bright as the noontime sun.

So what about those fabulous new songs? Here we go:

If It Wasn’t for Bad: Leon’s witty, weird, magnetic draw to the adventure that The Union is. Quizzical piano chords splash their way through the song. Simple yet clever, Leon’s lines are an entertaining collection of opposites, as he bitingly reflects on how he’s been snookered into entering into what he thought would be a promising relationship: “If it wasn’t for you I’d be happy/If it wasn’t for lies you’d be true/I know that you could be just like you should/If it wasn’t for bad you’d be good.”

Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes: One of Elton’s typically melodic country waltzes featuring cinematic lyrics from Bernie: “You came like an invasion, all bells and whistles blowin’/Reaping the rewards of the fable you’d been sowing/…Oh you came to town in headlines/And eight hundred dollar shoes.”

Hey Ahab: Among the most addictive, visceral, in-your-face rockers of Elton’s career, with its basis in explosive boogie-woogie. Leon provides a sort of buzzy vocal undercurrent that gives the song an almost sinister edge. Elton is at his most vocally funky here, strategically inserting grunt-hums wherever the lyric’s syllables cut short.

Gone to Shiloh: A U.S. Civil War tale which, through its military march tempo, gentle percussion evoking distant cannon fire, foreboding melody, and perfect use of Neil Young’s eerie, high-pitched voice to share in the verses, is one of the most haunting of recordings ever found on an Elton John album.

Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream: Breezy homage to the Father of Country Music, a native of Meridian, Mississippi, who alternated between showbiz and railroad work (sometimes as a brakeman) before his untimely, Depression-era death. One may hear hints of “The Trail We Blaze” and “Wicked Dreams,” but also “Country Comfort,” “Look Ma No Hands,” and “Postcards from Richard Nixon.”

There’s No Tomorrow: This funeral dirge may be only a semi-original effort, given that it’s built around The Mighty Hannibal’s “Hymn No. 5,” but it offers the most dramatic combination on the album of all available studio voices. Elton, Leon, and a backing, gospel-style chorus belt out grim lines with such force that you might have hope for the future after a couple of listens, despite what the singers contend.

Monkey Suit: Another boogie woogie-based rocker with a dash of Chuck Berry thrown in, it’s a notch less gripping than “Hey Ahab” - but it would be hard to match “Ahab”’s vein-popping aggressiveness. Watch out, though, as this track may cause you to bellow “monkey suit!” incessantly, while driving in traffic, even if people are looking your way.

The Best Part of the Day: Is this really a reflection about best friends, or about lovers who fit each other like a pair of old gloves? I vote for the latter. “Grab the bottle and slide my way,” Bernie writes. “Roll back the covers and raise the shades.” Elton and Leon’s performance captures the dreamy, relaxed satisfaction of the song’s two soul mates who watch the morning unfold as they marvel at their blissful circumstances. An ideal sing-along song, it’s the most folksy of the album’s tracks.

A Dream Come True: The tune that grew out of a jam between Elton and Leon at the start of recording; perhaps the song presenting the greatest “toe-tapping” potential. This fast-paced Fats Domino-inspired string of staccato piano phrases makes you hope the track will go on for a while, and it does, until there’s nothing left but a couple of rolled piano chords and a stray tuba breath.

When Love is Dying: Some might accuse Elton here of re-working “The One,” which has been unfairly denigrated as an exercise in overblown pop balladry, but one need not insult “The One” nor “When Love is Dying” to praise one or the other. Instead, their significance can be recognized with an open mind and welcoming heart. “The One” is a celebration of new love – so why shouldn’t it sound like a celebration? – with a soaring melody harkening back to “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” which Elton has said was influenced by The Beach Boys. Coincidentally or not, Brian Wilson guests on “When Love is Dying,” providing back-up singing and vocal arrangements. By his very involvement, he anoints the track with his approbation, as well he should. Thematically, it’s the flip side of “The One,” once the new lovers have spent their passion and, before they know it, can’t get it back. What is more, Elton’s soaring melody oozes a desperation that makes the song an heir to some of the love laments of late 50s, early 60s doo-wop ensembles. Wow.

I Should Have Sent Roses: Speaking of dying love, here is Leon’s take on the phenomenon, as he assigns a moody, almost gut-wrenching, jazz-inflected melody to some of Taupin’s saddest lyrics. As with “When Love is Dying,” Elton and Leon trade tragic reflections, and their harmonizing on the chorus (“I never sent roses/I never did enough/I didn’t know how to love you/Though I loved you so much”) is spine-tingling. You feel rotten after listening, but in a good way.

Hearts Have Turned to Stone: Written and sung by Leon with Elton only providing a few choice backing vocal phrases, this is an infectious, snappy, blues number that is made more so by Leon’s arrangement for the back-up singers, who echo or punctuate bits of the lyric lines as he sings: “I’m out here in the darkness (yes!)/I hear the howling wind (wind!)/Sometimes I sit and wonder (yes!)/Will I ever see love again (‘gain!).”

Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody): Though written by John and Taupin, the sentiments apply equally to not only the songwriting pair of 43 years, but Leon, too. All have “been there and done that” and seen things they wish they hadn’t, bearing scars to show for all of it. Yet they are still entitled to pursue new goals and enjoy happy companionship in their later years. It is not just a young person’s world anymore. The Master and the Rocket Man sound at their most intimate here, Leon’s singing sounding appropriately weary, Elton’s reaching a new level of loveliness, as the backing chorus eventually chimes in for an anthemic build-up.

In the Hands of Angels: Just knowing the reason for Leon composing this song (music and lyrics) is enough to coax tears from the eyes. “Angels” tells the story of Leon’s resignation to Twilight Years of obscurity and ill fortune when, lo and behold, Elton reenters his life, and proposes getting together for an album. Referring to Elton’s U.S. manager, Johnny Barbis, and the Rocket Man himself, Leon sings: “Johnny and the Governor/Came and brought me to my senses/They made me feel just like a king/Made me lose all my bad defenses/And they knew all the places I needed to go/All of the people I needed to know/ They knew who I needed/And who needed me.” It’s a secular gospel number, despite the reference to “angels,” and is the only track on the album on which Elton neither sings nor plays. But his absence is only fitting, as “Angels” is Leon’s gift to him. What a way to close the album.

Fans of Elton and Leon can thank T-Bone Burnett for bringing out the best in both men and surrounding them with such capable, spirited musicians and singers.

Liz Rosenthal

Elizabeth J. Rosenthal's first book, His Song: the Musical Journey of Elton John, was published in fall 2001 by Billboard Books. It's the first Elton John biography to be sold in Russia. After graduating magna cum laude with a journalism degree in 1982, Liz attended Rutgers-Camden School of Law, from which she graduated With Honors in 1985. She has been a civil servant, writing regulations for New Jersey state government. In 2002, she became bewitched by birds, since then reading everything about them that she could get her hands on and going on field trips whenever possible. Her current book, Birdwatcher: the Life of Roger Tory Peterson, is publicized on her web site:

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