Piano Man, He Makes His Stand: - Review by , Claude W. Bernardin, ( Co-Author of “Rocket Man: The Music Of Elton John A to Z”, 9/15/13.)
What we have today is something altogether new, yet certainly friendly and familiar, like being reunited with an old high school buddy. Perhaps a little older, a little road weary, a little jaded, but anyone alive in 1971, can easily see the chrome and shine behind all that lovely tarnish. The Elton John of today is a survivor, a talent to be reckoned with, and a golden Icon dulled with scars and years of patina. But the music lives on, and it is glorious!
So let’s get the Grade out of the way for the fan who hates wading through my superlatives and tedious murmurings….This album is a solid A. 4 ½ to 5 star affair. Is it Yellow Brick Road? Nope…..it’s something “DIFFERENT” and different is ok, in-fact different is beautiful, creative….sensitive and sophisticated. Is it perfect? Nope, let’s get the criticism out of the way: Missing is a track as tough as nails ballsy as “Amoreena”. Missing in action: A country-hayseed up-tempo “Wake Up Wendy” meets “Birds" meets Leon Russell track. Missing : An 8 minute Epic track in the vein of Funeral/Love Lies Bleeding or Have Mercy On The Criminal or Ticking. IF and I do say IF I was a talking fly on the wall at this session I’d have burned T-Bones Ear big time about it ! But those are “Fans” needs. What did Elton need during this session? We have that answer in our hands.
A Caution to the fans, You had to have lived this life from August/September 1970 – now to completely understand The Big Picture, otherwise it’s kind of like walking in to a movie when it’s half over and at the end saying: “I didn’t like it…I didn’t get it..” , Exactly!!!!!!!!!
This album is a Career milestone. A Bench mark. As Taupin has so aptly said: “One for the ages…”. There was another in his earlier career, and in fact to be fair there were several….Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across The Water, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and Captain Fantastic. Ooops hold on! Hold on! Stop the typing…..wasn’t there another, more subtle work, way ahead of its time, that fans and critics alike dismissed as Slow, boring, noncommercial, yet ten and twenty years later, those same people were hailing as a masterpiece? Yes, I am referring to 1976’s “Blue Moves”. Look if you claim to be an Elton John fan and you can’t accept nor recognize “Tonight”, “Sorry Seems To Be…”, “Cage the Songbird”, “Someone’s Final Song”, “Crazy water” and “Chameleon” as brilliant Elton John tracks, well then maybe you should try David Bowie or James Taylor.
Now, Yellow Brick Road was brilliant…but so was Blue Moves. In-fact I am one who feels it’s perfect, all bumps, bruises, scars, heights and valleys. I love what it is, and what that is ….is pure Artistic Freedom and expression. Just words and a tune….but GOOD words, and Good tunes. And that my friend is exactly what “The Diving Board” is today. It is not a bookend to 1971….it IS a bookend to 1976! The moment Both lyricist and Musician, walked away from the screams and halls of Rock N Roll Fame, off into some deep dark recess of personal angst, pain and regrets. A lot of crap piled far too high for far too many years, and once the dust settled back down….many important changes and decisions had to be made. To expect after such an Historic Career, that these same two individuals would ever rise back up from those ashes to still prove they are on their A Game, was a task I sometimes had to ask my own self as a fan, “was it possible?” I knew my answer…..”Yes! If there was anyone ANYONE in Rock Music capable, it would be these two guys…!!!! But it would take Monstrous Effort, and Elton’s determination and passion to do it. By the mid to late 90’s, as a fan, I began to question and doubt this would ever be possible. The Music and words were just too erratic in their quality. For me the moment of change was “Made In England”. But the next album took us into an abyss of a slide back downward. “The Big Picture” ( for me ) was one of the coldest sounding, lack luster studio efforts I had ever heard. It had it’s gems, ( “Wicked Dreams”, the title cut, “Loves got a lot to answer for” and more ), but over all lacking Piano, lacking energy. Lacking fire. )
Thank God both climbed back up from the rubble, when that house fell down, and caught a thundering train heading to the West Coast. In 2001, John and Taupin’s careers seemed to have a renewed gusto, a new passion for all things songwriting. From the Brilliant “Songs From The West Coast” through “Peach Tree Rd. “ and “The Captain And The Kid” and “The Union”….they have stayed the course…..has the machine faltered or sputtered on the tracks? Yes, a few times along the way, but mostly, the quality has been solid, the effort its equal. And all this hard work, eventually paired them with their own Idol Leon Russell for a return to the top of the Pop charts in 2009/2010 with “The Union.” In my honest estimation, I was convinced this would be the end, they’d done it, we got there at least….be proud for them….and accept the end will come for us. But still, there was that little twinkle of hope….fluttering down inside of me….”Wait!!! Did he just say…..I honestly don’t know what the fans are all so excited about, I can write better songs!!!”? I heard it, during a Union interview….I heard it….and I was saying to myself and anyone who’d listen…did you hear that? He said…..and then I’d add, “Ya gotta love him…..he’s just possibly gifted and bull headed enough to believe himself! LOL” Well, I heard it, but put the notion aside.
Another point I took note of, we shared an utter fascination for the reemergence of Bob Dylan in his Epic release, Modern Times. I recall posting about this, myself and another fan Richard Georgeou. If it had not been for Richard’s astute musical tastes I’d have probably missed the Dylan record completely. So 2006/2007 I filled my head and Internet with the thoughts of …”Why…Oh, why Can’t our Dear Elton John see the light? Why can’t he do something this creative and artistically deep? Why must it always be Springsteen, Young, Clapton or Dylan….Why? Why?” And then every now and again as the years progressed, I’d still hear Elton saying in interviews for each consecutive album….”Well it all started with that amazing Bob Dylan album…Modern Times…I thought if he could do it, why can’t Elton ? “
Well, Great works of Art…true Masterpieces…..can sometimes take awhile. And so I’m happy to announce : “You Did It Elton and Bernie !” Congratulations!!!!!!!!!!!!
So can we compare the past with the present?, no – not really, but what we can do is be fair….and recognize that yes, a career CAN have its pitfalls, road stops, bumps and bruises, and one day just maybe one day, all those dings and dents can be re-evaulated and blended into something new. In 1976 Elton John and Bernie Taupin stepped off of land, and fell into a great ocean of self-doubts, musical plundering, and terrible personal obstacles. But like a great prize-fighter, they had the nerve NOT to fall down at the bell. They continued standing, sometimes faltering, and now, now after 37 years, they have returned to the exact spot they left off, musically, lyrically, emotionally. On 1976’s “Blue Moves” there is a wonderful Gus Dudgeon Produced masterpiece of a song called “Crazywater”, it perfectly describes what this songwriting team must have been facing, and had to wade through for the next 3 decades.
“The Diving Board” now clearly, FIRMLY re-establishes this songwriting team as one of the Greatest Modern achievements of Pop Culture and Rock Music History. Yes, there “WAS” a Lennon and McCartney”, yes, there was a Rogers and Hammerstein, AND yes there will always be a John and Taupin.
Please do not assume I am throwing words carelessly to the wind as I state all of this. I have listened, I have had chills, I have been stunned, and fallen in love all over again with everything John and Taupin due to the release of this brilliant record. But Great things don’t often taste or smell or sound the same.
An Ice Cold Coke is not the same as a great chilled, aged bottle of wine straight from the French vineyards, one must mature and expand their tastes to appreciate it. I challenge the fans who do not like this album to listen to other forms of music for awhile. Get away from the Pop and Fizz of “Greatest Hits 1” and “Too Low For Zero”. Kick back and experience the history and earth of a true Legend.
But to go forward still, we should put to rest a few minor details:
1. Elton WAS a Pop Music Icon, he doesn’t have to go there anymore
2. Pop Music was his life and times, but so were many other forms of music and styles. Too often they got neglected for that glittery star of fame and fortune. Pop! Fizzzzzzzz!
3. America has many roots, and it’s musical roots can be found in the songs of the 1800’s by Stephen Foster, or the Honky Tonks of New Orleans, The Classical piano of Blind Tom, the Marching Band Music of John Phillip Sousa, the rasps and howls and hoots and snarls of Ray Charles, the Blues of Willie Horton and the Gospel of Mahaliah Jackson. The country of Hank Snow and Jim Reeves, the Rock of Elvis and Little Richard, the Broadway of George M. Cohan, the Jazz of Louise Armstrong and Dr. John and even the snarls and wisps of Leon Russell. Even the sing song melodies of plaintive Civil War ballads, or the quaint folk ancestral folk tunes of England, Ireland, and many other countries of our immigrant descendants. This is the History of Great American Songwriters and musicians. And this IS the music of “The Diving Board”.
4. Is Elton John a piano player? Yes, so wasn’t it about time to “FEATURE” that? Had we not had enough “Band” centered albums? I say yes.
5. Elton is a Pop Star, a Fantastic Live Act, a Musician, a Band Leader, An Aids Activist, An Idol to many, but what he mostly is, when you pull back the curtain and actually peak behind stage, is a Singer/Songwriter. Equal with the likes of his Musical Generation. When this crazy career began in 1970, he landed in LA, California at the Peak and heart of the Golden Age of the singer/songwriter movement. A Guy ( or girl) with a voice, some good words, and an instrument. Dylan was probably the King of this movement, Next perhaps, Lennon or McCartney, and then an amalgamation of talents from Joni Mitchell, James Taylor to Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, David Bowie, Neil Young, Graham Nash, Bruce Springsteen, Harry Chapin, Steve Winwood, Rod Stewart, Leon Russell, Brian Wilson, Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, David Ackles, Tom Waits and so many others. These singers, featured their instrument, and featured their lyrics and stories. Usually presented with a vocal performance worthy of the character they were presenting to us. Modern Theatre. Elton John was “THE MOST SUCCESSFUL SINGER SONGWRITER” of that era. But his fame and success was also always his ball and chain. Forced to always stream line his studio albums with pop fluff rather than substance. Forced to have not one, but two or three hit singles. And here’s the funny thing, ALWAYS delivering the goods! When most of his counter parts long ago abandoned the road to success because truthfully it was much too difficult a journey for them. So for me it is very fitting that “Our” road weary warrior has finally…found his way “Back home again….as he so aptly laments in “Home Again”.
6. Today Elton John is a rock musician, he writes thematically as well. He writes in many styles, The Musical Theatre thing, rock music, pop music, the ballad…country, blues….you should expect it all!
Track by track:
10. Take This Dirty Water Old Gospel Elton John ( Border Song, Madman, and Pilot ), 1970 era comes to mind immediately. So who is the inspiration for this track? Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Mahalia Jackson for sure, but possibly as well, Laura Nyro, another singer songwriter from the era, who Elton adored, and in-fact visited for the great build up piano of “Burn Down The Mission” on 1971’s Tumbleweed Connection. Her songs “And When I Die” and “Eli’s Coming” were huge influences. Elton recently mentioned this on The Elvis Costello TV show Influences. Each time I hear this song I like it more. It’s that Old bluesy Elton, What “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” wishes it could be. Love the background singers. It could have fit on any album pre-1973. And “Too Low” fans …um “Religion” or this? Not close! Melody: A-, Piano: A, Lyrics: B+, Vocal: A-
11. Dream #2 The Next musical interlude. Again a perfect, pensive break from the album, time contemplate all moods and sounds, a perfect respite. B+
12. New Fever Waltz I’m not big on waltz songs. But this song is lovely! The New Orleans brass just grabs me. The words are classic Image laden Taupin. The cellos, are wonderful. American Waltz originated in Boston in the 1830’s. A romantic, more artistically free style dancing than that of its European form. Today it is still a popular dance at American Country functions. The song seems musically to be a bow to style changes of Bob Dylan’s “Modern Times”. Like Dylan’s album, the songs run the gambit and fly in and out of changes. From ballad to rocker and so on. At first not one of my favorites, it has now been added to my playlist as a pretty track. It’s melody effortlessly glides along Taupin’s lovely words. And Taupin’s lyric evoke an entirely different era of time and place. If any time I want to wonder what the 1890’s felt like musically, I can certainly turn to this number. Will it be a barn-stormer musically in the catalog of Elton John, of course not, but still after getting 3 classic Elton ballads and 2 classic Elton rockers did we need another one of those either? A good change up for me, something different. Piano: A, Brass Arrangement: A+, Lyrics: A, Vocal: A, Melody: B+ - The Chorus is Lovely! The Cellos: A+
13. Mexican Vacation Classic New Orleans Blues, and ya gotta love the Snarling Black Vocals Elton applies to it. Ok it’s “Monkey Suit” meets “Wasteland”, but shhh let’s not tell him. It’s grown on me, at first, the live version, did nothing for me for some reason, but the effort here is obvious and it adds a great spark to it. I love the effort on piano at the end! Love it! Piano: A+, Vocal : A+, Lyrics: B+, Melody: A-
14. Dream # 3 The best of the instrumental interludes, very fun, lovely piano, and it works as a break once again to lead us into the feel of the next switch up. I do love the pace of this album. The interludes really help set your mind in the right place. Anyone hear “Sixty Years On” in his piano on it? I don’t think that was by accident.
15. The Diving Board Vocally this one threw me for a loop! Two listens later, I couldn’t get the darn melody out of my head, especially…”Those dizzy heights!! And the view from the Diving Board”. It’s just a fantastic track. And Elton’s voice fits this style perfectly. The New Orleans Jazz Band takes me to places I’ve never been with Elton’s music, and places I’ve wanted him to go for decades. Ray Charles would have absolutely loved this song! This is so great to see Elton welcome in such rich American music. I have not had time to digest this track enough, how could I? Too many other great tracks on here. But I can tell you this, it’s moving up the list as one of my favorite songs….on this album. A great album cut. How good is it? Better than “When Love Is Dying” and “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore” and “Blue Eyes” and that just blows me away! Vocal: A+, Piano: A, Brass Arrangement: A+, Melody: A, Lyrics: A+
16. 5th Avenue I’ve heard comparisons to “I Want Love” and “Burning Buildings”, yeah, I guess I hear it, but it’s the same guy who wrote those. He’s allowed to borrow from himself…and ever wonder it just might happen unconsciously? I’ve fallen head over heels in love with this song. Love the way it builds up, the chorus is Killer! Classic Elton chorus here. One of my favorite tracks from these sessions. Also love the piano break. For some reason I think of “Love Sick” a song I’ve always been found of. It’s got me back to 1976 or 1977 Elton, and I’m so happy I’m thinking back there musically. Is the song about Bernie visiting New York and reflecting on the loss of John Lennon? I don’t know…I think not due to the line…I saw your old man on the news…who is it? A Mystery to me, but I don’t care, the song works and works well. Vocal: A+, Melody: A+, Lyrics: B+, Piano: A.
17. Candlelit Bedroom Not one of my favorite songs. Glad it was left off. However consider this, originally it was to have been included. And if we had received that initial album, would it have garnered such glowing reviews? I think not. He was wise to go back in and write some more songs. And what a day in the Books of History that must have been, written on one day….Voyeur, Home Again, and Ocean’s Away. WOW!