Total Pageviews

20 Sep 2013

The Master Expertises (IV): Jim Turano

“The Diving Board”: A Risky, Worthy Leap

By James Turano


On many levels, Elton John’s latest studio album, “The Diving Board” requires a major leap of faith.
A leap of faith to fully appreciate the bold musical and artistic vision Elton and his creative team here – lyricist Bernie Taupin and producer T Bone Burnett – are striving to put forward.
A leap of faith to fully embrace many of the songs which, simultaneously, are refreshingly different and frustratingly difficult, consistently derivative and familiar, and yet somehow appealingly comfortable and reassuring within Elton’s long-established, style.
And ultimately, a leap of faith for both longtime fans, and the casual listeners to realize – for better or worse –“The Diving Board” is the most challenging album Elton and Taupin have created in their 46-year career.
To use the term “challenge” isn’t necessarily a negative. But it’s not a resounding positive. Challenge is good. It forces to you work, to invest your time, and to seek. It keeps your interest and makes you care.
I’m grateful that after more than 40 years, Elton and Bernie are still able to challenge me, to keep my interest, to make me care about their music and their talent.
“The Diving Board” benefits from a patience most of Elton John’s other 29 studio albums never had the luxury of experiencing. Written and recorded during two separate sessions in 2012 and 2013, the finished product is appreciably bolstered by the extra time for consideration and addition.
The original version of “The Diving Board,” recorded in early 2012 and slated for release later that year, contained just 10 songs, mostly ballads with lyrics acutely esoteric and tragic. The final version now boasts 12 full songs plus three short instrumentals.
And thankfully, this strategic idea of delaying and re-visiting the project occurred, because most of the best songs on the album, including, “Oceans Away,” “Home Again,” “Voyeur,” and “Take This Dirty Water,” all were written during the second recording session.
These new songs inject a much-needed punch to the album, and without them, “The Diving Board” would have been a very different album indeed, and woefully lacking in comparison.
One can only imagine with whetted delight if Elton had taken more time between albums during his heyday of the 1970s. Those albums are considered among his best, but because of tight contract obligations, they were hurriedly written and recorded within days and released sometimes with only six months intervals.
Given the talents of Elton John, Bernie Taupin, producer Gus Dudgeon, and Elton’s excellent original band, who knows if classic albums like “Tumbleweed Connection,” “Madman Across the Water,” “Honky Chateau,” “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player,” “Caribou” or even “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” could have been even better with more time to consider and create. But that’s another discussion.
At the outset, it must be said; “The Diving Board” is a substantial, worthy, rewarding album -- musically, lyrically, and production-wise -- with much to like and engage the listener. The previously mentioned songs, “Oceans Away,” “Home Again,” “Take This Dirty Water,” the best of the entire collection, “Voyeur,” (which the album was temporarily re-tilted) and the title track are all new extensions to the venerable “Elton John sound,” and yet convey those absorbing intangibles of Elton’s music that inextricably elevate it and keep us coming back for more.
Regardless of the virtues of specific songs, or of the album as a whole, “The Diving Board” is the best presentation on record of Elton’s two inherent and unique talents; singing and piano playing. Musically and vocally, Elton sounds invigorated and determined.
He sings and plays piano here like he means it. Like he’s out to prove himself.
Elton performs here as if he is not pop’s conquering Captain Fantastic, but rather, Pinner’s prodigy Reg Dwight striving and driven to be noticed.
And that’s what this album is attempting to do: be different, be noticed, and make a definitive statement about not who they were for the past 43 years, but who Elton John and Bernie Taupin are in 2013 and beyond.
Elton and Taupin’s opus, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” was released 40 years ago in October, and is still regarded by most as their “masterpiece.” On that album, a 23-year-old protesting Taupin ranted “where we fight our parents out in the street to find whose right and who’s wrong.” Four decades later, a 63-year-old respectful Taupin offers an elegy to the elderly, by admitting, “I hung out with the old folks, in the hope that I’d get wise.”
This shift in creative perspective permeates “The Diving Board,” and on the eve of the 40th anniversary of one of their greatest albums of the past, the “Tin Pan Alley Twins” return in the present with new, mature music and a rejuvenated spirit. It’s captivating to hear a legend Like Elton John, with nothing to prove, sound so raw, eager, and fresh.
On “The Diving Board,” Elton John is heard as he should be heard on a record, and exactly how longtime fans have been patiently waiting decades to hear him.
However, and this where the challenge emerges, the album’s appeal isn’t immediate or thorough. For all the impressive moments, and there are many, there are other key components that fall just short.
For this reason, “The Diving Board” conflicts me. Conflicts me in a way that I’ve never experienced after listening to and digesting an Elton John album.
I’m naturally drawn to it; especially because of the prominence and pristine recording of Elton’s vocals and piano that dominates it on the whole. But at the same time, many of the songs initially seemed to simply pass by me, gliding along and failing to grab me with much emotion or excitement.
With time, however, I did feel and hear some of the music and lyrics come to life. But even in its best moments now, it still hasn’t seized me, refusing to go. I’m still grappling with a number of songs, engaged in an audio wrestling match by being extremely impressed with certain aspects – mostly Elton’s unprecedented piano playing at various times within an individual song – but never fully and willingly surrendering to the entire composition or album as a whole.
One of the main obstacles, and perhaps this is borne of knowing Elton and Taupin’s entire musical catalogue too well (albums, B-sides, bonus tracks, and all the rest), is many songs conjure familiar ghosts of Elton and Taupin’s past -- melodic or lyrical passages that tempt us with this similarity, but leave us with an unfulfilled feeling of having been there before.
At times, “The Diving Board” hints at several Elton projects of the last two decades or more, featuring flashbacks of songs from “Made In England,” “The Road To El Dorado,” “Peachtree Road,” “The Captain And The Kid,” “The Union” and Broadway musicals “Billy Elliot” and “Lestat.”
Granted it’s understandable and proven that after 46 years, any artist inevitably will repeat. And for longtime fans, occasional nods to the past are duly recognized and appreciated. For example, Taupin’s subtle lyrical allusions to their past throughout “The Captain And The Kid” added to the album’s nostalgic theme and charm. Similarly, this sequel album’s title track also featured a musical introduction reminiscent of the original’s title track, rightly bonding both “Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy” and “The Captain And The Kid” as individual songs and autobiographical albums.
But on “The Diving Board,” the similarities aren’t intended. True, many of the previous songs that share a sound or lyric with the current ones aren’t major hits or well-known (“Belfast,” “Keep It A Mystery,” “Without Question,” ”Never Knew Her Name” “Turn The Lights Out When You Leave,” to name a few) to the casual listener, so perhaps few will notice.
Regardless, the similarities are there, they are readily apparent to those who are able to recognize them, and are repeated enough throughout the album to make a difference and detract from the album’s complete effect for the serious fan looking for more from Elton and Taupin than sleeping with their past.
Additionally, Burnett’s trademarks – rootsy, retro sounds and production, and a regular stable of studio musicians -- often- creates sameness on the album. Burnett infuses the entire affair with a heavy, undeniable influence of gospel, blues, honky tonk and a New Orleans funeral march.
While it’s great to hear Elton enveloped in this organic sound – as it plays to his natural musical instincts and Taupin’s penchant for Americana and image-laden storytelling -- a sparse musical foundation of just piano, drums and bass, mostly slow or mid-tempo songs, and the same musicians on every track, restricts the album from venturing too far from its core sound or creating too many lasting thrills.
Perhaps this is an area where using some of Elton’s current or recent band members – most obviously, current band drummer Nigel Olsson, and at least during the first sessions in 2012, the now deceased bassist Bob Birch – on even one of the songs might have broken the album’s unvaried pace and generated some chill-inspiring moments.
Given that “The Diving Board” was originally envisioned as returning to Elton’s early sound, first achieved in 1970 as a touring trio with drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray, it seems a no-brainer to have Olsson involved in some role, as well as Birch, who in concert regularly channeled the ear-turning bass parts of Murray in his own imaginative playing. Birch’s inclusion, sadly, also would have served as a fitting final tribute to the late musician, who took his life in August, 2012.
The conflicts and challenges of “The Diving Board” are two-fold: there isn’t an undisputed, bona fide new “classic” on the album; and perhaps the most glaring disappointment of all is the absence of the one key ingredient to every Elton John album.
The “fun.”
Rock ‘n’roll fun.
Where’s the fun?
Understandably, with Elton and Taupin now both sixty years on, most of the songs on “The Diving Board” have a questioning, introspective, regretful, and sometimes downright depressing lyrical tone, which dictates slow melodies to match these somber tones.
There’s nothing wrong with this, as many of Elton’s best songs are his yearning, tortured ballads. But even the most serious Elton albums always have their moments of pure rock and energy.
Whether it’s ballsy rockers like “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)” or “Streets Kids,” jumpy pop gems like “Crocodile Rock” or “Hercules,” edgy, hard- drivers like “All The Girls Love Alice” or “One Horse Town,” or pounding thumpers like “Bennie And The Jets” or the recent “Hey Ahab,” amid all the masterful melancholy and purple prose, on most Elton John albums there always are a few no holds barred rockers to boost the pulse.
And anyone who has seen Elton perform in concert knows that despite his 66 years, the guy can still rock, and rock hard when necessary. So why isn’t there any on “The Diving Board”? We know Elton can play them. We know Bernie can write them. And based on Burnett’s history, both as a performer and a producer, he knows how to rock for sure, as evidenced by his work with Elvis Costello, John Mellencamp, Los Lobos, The BoDeans, and many others.
Just one or two up-tempo rockers on “The Diving Board” could have tipped the scales on the overall force of an album deliberately designed to embolden Elton to tap into his musical DNA by eliminating the embellishments and bravely showcasing the best of his talents in their purest essence and strength.
Still, producer Burnett must be endlessly praised for finally placing Elton’s rich voice at the very top of mix, only matched by his equally expert and lively piano playing. In these two respects, this is as “naked” and real as Elton’s voice and piano have ever sounded on a studio record.
And so, even on songs some that sound patently familiar (“A Town Called Jubilee” for example, could easily be an outtake from 2004’s “Peachtree Road”), they are heartily rescued and brought to life by some amazing, enthralling piano playing in many styles, and much of it sounding free-form, improvised, and instinctual.
Elton repeatedly offers tasty and addictive piano fills, vamps, touches, flourishes, poundings, chord progressions, and catchy trills and solos that delight, bewilder, and enchant. Even somewhat lesser songs, including “The Ballad Of Blind Tom” or “Mexican Vacation (Kids In The Candlelight)” are imbued with a vintage Elton John energy and zest.
From the first notes and quiet chords of the first track, “Oceans Away,” – starkly featuring just Elton’s voice and piano – it’s clear “The Diving Board” will a be a logical continuation in mission and purpose established by Burnett on 2010’s impressive Elton-Taupin-Leon Russell collaboration, “The Union.”
In fact, the prominent piano/vocal production and reflective lyric of “Oceans Away” hints at the sound and mood of “Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes” the first “Elton-only” song on “The Union.” Depending on your perspective, this either could be a good portent, offering potent, promising signs of a continued creative growth, or a huge, raging disappointment. Because from the get-go, this is not your grandfather’s Elton John album. And that’s the challenge.
“The Diving Board” is such a challenge that the only way to best discuss it is to explain the first reaction to it after one or two listens, then share thoughts about the album’s ultimate merit based on many consecutive, repeated listens.
It’s challenging, mainly, because on first blush many of the instantly intoxicating components that have come to define a characteristic Elton John album simply do not seem to exist. Or are they there? Perhaps, those “instant classics” I’m somehow missing are simply not presented in their usual form.
Is then “The Diving Board,” a decided departure from the usual formula? Is it a fully realized album that does offer the best aspects of the John/Taupin songwriting synergy?
It’s these and other nagging questions that linger at first and delay the album’s initial reactions and make it a challenge -- a challenge whose demanding effort is thankfully and happily, worthwhile.
The view here is the conscious decision to not just phone it in and not make just another “usual Elton John album” should be applauded and encouraged. After all, Elton John now is steadily veering into a career chapter that must be focused on lasting legacies for the ages, not fleeting record chart positions.
But this shift can be unsettling for those whom, after several decades, still crave a certain feeling, experience, and relationship to the songs after listening to an Elton John album.
Truth be told, my initial reaction scared me.
Yes, scared me. Here’s how. Admittedly, after the first listen of “The Diving Board” from top to bottom, I was left feeling…nothing.
Nothing.
Numb.
Numb and perplexed.
Why wasn’t I immediately connecting with any of this new Elton John music as I have been for the last 40 years? I mean, I even found a few things to like on “Leather Jackets” for God’s sake!
As I first listened to the music and read the lyrics to all the songs on “The Diving Board,” I was anxiously awaiting – as I have when listening to any new Elton John album for the first time -- for that “Ah-ha” moment when that song or songs burst from the speakers and instantly carried me away.
Like the first time I heard “Come Down In Time,” or “High Flying Bird,” or “Crazy Water,” or “Sacrifice,” or “Original Sin,” or “Pinky” or “The One,” or “Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy,” or “Chloe” or “In Neon,” or “Blue Avenue,” or most recently, “Mandalay Again” or “When Love Is Dying” and so, so many more.
But I didn’t hear it. I didn’t feel it. And it scared me. As time went on and I listened to the album over and over, more intensely, many of these fears were eventually calmed and some dispensed. However, there was a good while there when I was ambivalent. And I didn’t remember feeling so detached from a new Elton John album.
I was shocked and scared.
The album’s first single, “Home Again,” released in the summer, was a logical but deceptive first reveal of the album. Of all the songs on “The Diving Board,” “Home Again” is the most “Elton-ish.” The sound, feel, and story is pure Elton -- with its tender piano opening; crisp, longing vocal; and sentimental, reflective lyric by Taupin. The memorable hummable chorus quickly sticks in your head.
“Home Again” was a make-good on the exciting initial promise “The Diving Board” would be a stripped-down, bare bones sound as offered on the increasingly appreciated live album, “11-17-70,” featuring Elton on piano, Olsson on drums and Murray on bass.
But months later, finally listening to the complete album in running order, the immediate sweep and hold of “Home Again” wasn’t as pronounced and consistent.
As the album progressed from the first track, “Oceans Away” through to the sixth, “My Quicksand,” (including the first of three musical interludes, “Dream #1”) the songs just weren’t registering. And after hearing the ballad, “5th Ave.,” which was included on the working 2012 version of the album, but later dropped, it’s a shame this moving song didn’t replace either “The Ballad Of Blind Tom” or “My Quicksand” at the front of the final released album to give it some needed genuine emotion.
As I listened, drummer Jay Bellerose’s signature deep, thumping beats, though effective and interesting in small doses, began to dominate and drone. At times, when bassist Raphael Saadiq was featured, his bass sound did impress, but didn’t seem to appear enough for it to be memorable.
And while I like the idea of the three “Dream” musical interludes that act as tasteful palate cleansers between certain songs or moods shifts, they are too short and remind one of the various impromptu piano introductions Elton plays live before he performs “Take Me To The Pilot.” Maybe one full instrumental, which used to be a staple on many of Elton’s albums in the ‘70s and ‘80s, would have been a better option.
As I listened more intensely, I found myself slowly gravitating to the last half of the album, beginning my listening at Track 7, the rather pedestrian but undeniably likable, “Can’t Stand Alone Tonight,” and then heading into the more adventurous (“Voyeur”), hypnotic (“The New Fever Waltz”), piano-pounding (“Take This Dirty Water” and “Mexican Vacation (Kids In The Candlelight”), and beguiling (“The Diving Board”) songs on the album.
If this was a vinyl LP from the ‘70s, I might just regularly skip Side One and just play Side Two every time.
Lyrically too, I was a bit unsettled at first. Taupin’s words seemed long-winded (“Down around these parts if it was me I’d have hopped a westbound stage”), dense (“Insurance of protection from immediate collapse”), and oddly forced (“It’s sure enough the favored nations aided their decline”). The lyrics Taupin gave Elton also didn’t seem varied in tone to offer much leeway in composing diverse melodies.
Most of the songs demanded slow or mid-tempo melodies, setting the stage for a more sedate overall album. And in some cases Elton sounded like he was straining to fit all of Taupin’s lyrics within his melodic passages.
For example, the second track, “Oscar Wilde Gets Out” felt lyrically weighed down by history and the wordy exposition needed to tell its story. Only after several listens did the song finally feel robust, but only due to the pressing piano chords and melodic detour Elton applies to the bridge verse, helping to create a heightened sense of fear and despair when singing of Wilde’s imprisonment and ultimate freedom.
The gospel-flavored “A Town Called Jubilee,” was another wordy, complex story song inhabited by several characters and consequences that despite its energetic stomp and uplifting choir felt very ordinary lyrically, but is saved, again, by several nifty, honky tonk Elton piano riffs that give it some punch, but not enough for an impressive knockout.
Similarly, “The Ballad Of Blind Tom” (and do we really need another “Ballad Of…” song at this point?) is a topic that may fit on Taupin’s roots music radio program, but it didn’t belong here. And “My Quicksand” plays like an anguished “Lestat” outtake that embarks on a never-ending search of a melody or time signature.
Especially overt are Taupin’s ever-increasing use of Western imagery as metaphors that have gradually crept into his writing for more than 20 years, ever since he sequestered himself on a California ranch. Maybe “The Brown Dirt Cowboy” needs to spend some time at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City for a spell once in a while.
He also uses some previous phrases such as “Like the belt around Orion” in “Oceans Away,” a phrase also used in “Goodbye Marlon Brando” from 1988’s “Reg Strikes Back.” And “…you’re built to last” from “Take This Dirty Water,” appeared prominently in the title song from “Made In England.”
This is not to say that Taupin doesn’t deliver. He does. With time, I found these are just different types of songs than he’s supplied to Elton in the past. Again, this isn’t a bad thing. Just different. Just challenging.
For example, when the country-fried “Can’t Stay Alone Tonight” kept trotting at a restrained pace lyrically and musically, Taupin impresses by describing a shaky relationship with the lines, “You’re the last chance on the highway/I’m that open stretch of road/You’re the diner in my rear-view/A cup of coffee getting cold.”
In “Take This Dirty Water,” he confidently exclaims, “If you take the breaks you’re given, you get to make the rules.” Later in the song he fondly recalls days of unbound youth with, “Search out days that never end/If it’s only for the chance to feel just like a child again.”
In “Voyeur,” he creates one of his vintage, visual lyrics that’s just a joy to hear Elton sing, “And in every secret rendezvous where illicit lovers park.” It’s a beautifully crafted line of poetry that immediately takes you to a place in time and of timelessness.
So, despite the deadened hesitancy after first hearing “The Diving Board,” and the eventual discovery and appreciation of elemental aspects of the album – Elton’s vocals and piano playing, many of Taupin’s lyrics, Burnett’s warm, “Elton-centric” production – how does the album rate? Here’s a song-by-song rundown that may best demonstrate the challenge and conflict that hovers over “The Diving Board.”
“Oceans Away”: An excellent choice to begin, as Elton’s bare piano and vocal takes center stage and sets the tone for the entire album. Taupin’s lyric of respect and mourning also represents the introspective agenda he’ll put forth throughout. Though the song references war veterans and a decaying generation, it’s more a cautionary tale of enrichment and appreciation of our personal aging loved ones before they’re gone. When he directs us to “Call ‘em up,” am I the only one who believes Taupin may be sending Elton a subtle message to contact his own mum after several years of unfortunate estrangement?
“Oscar Wilde Gets Out”: On “The Union” Taupin extolled music legend Jimmie Rodgers, this time he sets his pen on poet Oscar Wilde’s wild professional and personal odyssey. Surely, Wilde is worthy of such an homage, but unlike other cultural icons Taupin has tackled in song, including Marilyn Monroe, Roy Rogers, and Lady Diana, Wilde’s legend isn’t as readily known, and thus the song must rely more on a litany of hard facts than emotionally-charged universal imagery to tell its compelling story. The lyric never lifts us or its subject, and it feels more like a reading assignment than a song to get lost in. Only Elton’s urgent piano playing during the bridge enables this to raise the stakes and exude the passion to take some hold.
“A Town Called Jubilee”: Yet another throwback in a long line over the years to the detailed, homespun Americana storytelling of “Tumbleweed Connection” and its recent quasi-companion, “Peachtree Road.” The story here though, isn’t as dramatic as “My Father’s Gun,” desperate as “Burn Down The Mission” or endearing as “Country Comfort,” from “Tumbleweed,” and is only heightened and rescued from monotony by Elton meticulous, scrumptiously funky polo solos.
“The Ballad Of Blind Tom”: This is a glorified B-side at best, telling the obscure story about a gifted piano-playing savant of American’s 19th Century slave era. The effort is noble, the is message worthy, but like the earlier Oscar Wilde tribute, its wordiness and exposition make it a tough slog and its interest is niche at best. Elton’s chugging “Keep It A Mystery” piano lead is the only saving grace from a track I now routinely skip past.
“Dream #1”: I like the idea of these brief musical moments to change the mood and segue into a new song, but even though this gentle and grave interlude is effective, it’s just too short to stand on its own and easily could have been the next song’s official introduction.
“My Quicksand”: I didn’t “get” this one on the first listen, and after many, many (too many, in fact) repeated listens and an excruciating effort to find something here, it still leaves me empty and distant. It sounds like a discarded demo in which Elton is trudging in vain to find a melody for Taupin’s tormented treatise. The song serpentines musically, never finding a secure destination because this brooding, poet’s lament is just cryptic, creative confusion (“I went to Paris once/ I thought I had a plan/I woke up with an accent”) put to paper. Elton’s flowing, jazz-tinged piano solo does bend the ear enough to suggest perhaps the lyric could have been scrapped all together and this could have had promise as a full-length piano instrumental. As it is, it’s suffocating and sinks fast.
“Can’t Stay Alone Tonight”: It’s impossible not to tap your toe to this confessional love song’s instantly appealing beat, and it gives the album some much-needed pep at its mid-point. But Elton basically resurrects another Jim Reeves-inspired country melody for a mostly average lovesick lyric that becomes almost a throwaway, sounding like Elton could have written it in a minute, and has on several occasions. This might have had a chance to be more with a faster tempo and committed vocal, but Elton’s singing is more obligatory than soaring, and it’s like hearing “Turn The Lights Out When You Leave” without the bite and venom, or “I Never Knew Her Name” without the blasting horns and attitude.
“Voyeur”: My favorite song on the album because it’s just so different (although there is a moment of “Without Question” in the breaks) and daring from anything else here, or anything Elton and Bernie have written in decades. Its mysterious title is supported by a shadowy, sneaky piano lead and sinister bass line that heightens its stalking motives. At times it reminds me of “Where To Now, St. Peter?” in its melody and taut lyrical web. The song effortlessly moves and shifts in tempo and meaning, and the song majestically builds in hope, paranoia, and desperation, ending appropriately with Elton bellowing a haunting final plea and declaration, as an exquisitely twisting piano solo plays the song out on an ethereal, unforgettable and addictive high note. More songs like this and this album’s challenges would have been stimulating rather than angst-filled.
“Home Again”: As close as the album gets to launching another John-Taupin classic in the “Elton John sound” tradition. It’s all here, the melody, the piano, the memorable chorus, vocal performance, the production and musical accompaniment (Bellerose’s muted pounding and the delicate use of horns adds the quiet drama). The song’s grieving, guilty longing for a return to places of your past is pure Taupin, who has frequently written of his conflicted emotions of leaving his simple rural roots for the bright lights and yellow brick roads of fame. At this stage of his life Taupin isn’t looking back with regret, but rather, is celebrating his liberation because it was integral to a new acknowledgement and awareness for where he came from. Elton too is a vagabond, who constantly travels and owns several homes around the world, so he too can relate. When he sings, “If I’d never left, I’d never have known,” you can feel his honesty and connection to the lyric and the sentiment. So, if it’s got it all, then why isn’t it a classic? While it has all the needed ingredients of an Elton John classic, it feels like it purposely doesn’t want to go for broke and unleash the innate drama and stirring pathos necessary to transcend and lift the listener like “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” “Harmony” or even “When Love Is Dying” does. Maybe in Burnett’s over-riding goal to be different on this album, he did not want it to be over the top. But that decision prevents it becoming something extra special. “Home Again” never reaches the swelling crescendo needed to make it a classic.
“Take This Dirty Water”: A jaunty, rollicking number steeped in gospel/rock that ascends to the heavens, again, mostly because of Elton’s surging piano that deceptively flows under the most fully realized musical assistance on the album of drums, guitar, bass, choir and handclaps. You can hear this one sung in a Southern church on any given Sunday, with its proudly proclaiming lyric seeking personal redemption and rebirth. Sadly, though, for all its gusto, this song is mostly a repeated catchy chorus, which dulls its ultimate power. This is another example of a song failing to fully flourish. Rather than building in intensity, it quickly finds its high point and never attempts to surpass this level. Throughout it feels like it desperately wants to break its restraints and charge toward its end in a glorious “hallelujah moment,” but instead, it concludes with quiet resolve. This is one where Nigel Olsson and Bob Birch may have been able to help elevate it to the natural heights it could have reached.
“Dream #2”: Another pretty piano pause to change the mood, this one is somewhat more evolved, but again, fades fast to serve its purpose rather than hanging on to find its own way.
“The New Fever Waltz”: The title gives it away. Naturally, this swan song of war-time weariness and uncertainty is a standard waltz. Musically, its similarity to “Belfast” from “Made In England” is evident from the outset, which is a distraction as it proceeds. It’s a waltz, so how can it NOT make you lean, bend and sway? And its chorus does stay with you. But the song doesn’t reveal any surprises, and like many songs on the album, it finds its course early and stays there. But Elton’s vocal is especially sensitive and affecting, and his piano and accompanying strings add necessary color. It’s pleasing and seductive like most waltzes. No wonder why the Viennese love Strauss.
"Mexican Vacation (Kids In The Candlelight)": This song of social revolution and freedom may have been influenced in part by 2011’s Arab Spring that occurred in many repressed Middle East countries. However, two years later, the optimism of these revolutions has dimmed, and countries like Egypt today are mired in chaos and unrest, and Syria has killed its own rebels and civilians with chemical weapons. So the celebratory tone of this song seems to have lost its luster. However, Elton’s piano playing is so large, lively, and committed, the lyrics are almost an afterthought. To hear Elton play piano with such effortless abandon and showy confidence is a treat we see and hear regularly in concert, but don’t regularly get on record. So here it is, soak it in. It’s one of many songs on the album that is better for its parts rather than its whole.
“Dream #3”: Finally, a musical intermission offering some real substance. With additional accompaniment on drums, Elton gleefully lets his fingers do the taking, utilizing the entire keyboard, and mixing in charging chords, flighty single notes, frantic trills and anything else he can find for his fingers to play. He saved the best instrumental for last, too bad it couldn’t last more than 1:37.
The Diving Board,”: The title track on this most personal of albums is a deliciously hidden homage to Elton himself, a show business legend who has “seen it all, from up there on the diving board.” Elton may claim it’s about current pop culture lost souls Lindsay Lohan or Justin Bieber, but this has Elton John all over it. Taupin relishes leaving the fame game, but with admiration, love, and concern he traces Elton’s rise to stardom, his consumption of it, and its risky implications. He tells how Elton “fell in love with all/The planets alight/Those dizzy heights,” how he’d “free fall into the ether above the people/Out on a limb fragile and adored,” how he “took the grand prize” and escaped “the reach of their fangs and their claws” of show business parasites, and describes him lovingly as “Such a pale little thing/In your lily-white skin.” Elton unfolds this showbiz saga in a jazzy, trippy melody, and Burnett drapes it with a lush, velvety surrounding of muted horns and drum brushes. But what really sells this is Elton’s sassy, poignant vocal, which drips of Nina Simone. Sure, at times it sounds a bit like “My Elusive Drug,” but Taupin’s lyric is so cleverly deceptive yet on the mark, and Elton sings it like his personal anthem. This album is in many ways about Elton, and so it’s fitting for the album to end on such a personal note. It’s a quiet, hazy note, but nonetheless a strong, revealing, and classy one.
So, after all that, do I hate it? No.
Do I love it? No.
I’m still conflicted, I’m but more than willing to keep listening, and keep being challenged by it.
What I do know, is, I respect it. And I respect Elton and Bernie making for it. In T Bone Burnett, Elton and Taupin have found a producer whom they fully trust and respect. Instead of wavering from their initial goal and ultimately making a more commercially palatable and fan-friendly album, Burnett kept them on a course aimed to take some chances and turn some heads.
Perhaps this album was meant to be a challenge.
A challenge for both Elton and Taupin – individually and together – to escape their comfort zone and stretch their talents, abilities and possibilities. A challenge for their fans (me included) to put aside their lofty, safe expectations and accept new songs that purposely don’t fit the usual mold. A challenge to make their fans and the public in general hear songs that may not instantly please, but in the long run, may more ultimately satisfy.
I’m not sure where “The Diving Board” will take me in the next days, months, or even years. But I’m intrigued enough keep taking this leap to a new place where Elton John’s music may now reside and continue to challenge.
After all, if I never left, I’d never have known.

Jim Turano


James Turano is a graduate with honors from Elmhurst College, graduated from St. Bartholomew Grade School in Chicago, and is the creator and benefactor of an annual writing scholarship at the high school. Turano, a self-professed “entertainment junkie and pop culture guru” has worked in the Chicago media and arts as a newspaper and magazine writer, columnist, reporter and editor, radio talk show host, an executive with the international public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton, and as an actor, with various theater groups in Chicago and its suburbs. He has interviewed many important players in Elton’s career including Bernie Taupin. He also wrote the liner notes for the award-winning 1998 album release, “Crop Circles,” by Johnstone and John Jorgenson, and contributed 40 album reviews to “The Elton John Scrapbook.” Known as "Elton" Jim as part of "The Garry Meier Show" radio program on WGN Radio AM 720 in Chicago, daily from 3-7 pm. Turano's Ron Santo impersonation is one of the best bits the show has going.

No comments: