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20 Sept 2013

The Master Expertises (III): Liz Rosenthal


By Elizabeth J. Rosenthal

The Diving Board is not Elton John’s “first record” since The Captain and the Kid in 2006.  He released a CD called The Union with Leon Russell  - produced by T Bone Burnett – just three years ago. Although it was not a “solo” Elton John effort, it was as much an Elton John album as anything else he’s released in his career, even if he shared top billing with his hero and mentor of 40-plus years ago. EJ co-wrote and played piano on almost all of the songs, and sang lead or backing vocals on all but one track.

As for The Diving Board, it was controversial before anyone had heard a note.  Some fans were apoplectic that Elton’s excellent and versatile touring band, headed by longtime EJ guitarist Davey Johnstone, was left off the new work.  Fans furiously pointed fingers at T Bone Burnett, the producer on this, his second project with the Rocket Man.  “Burnett is a musical tyrant!” protested some Elton John devotees on social media sites.  “He is a bad, bad man who doesn’t understand Elton’s music!”  I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.

The truth is that T Bone Burnett deserves a medal for drawing out the real Elton John on this recording.  Burnett told Elton before they started that he’d like to see the Pinner native go back to basics. Not just back to basic rock, or back to organic music without synths and click-tracks, but a piano-bass-drums set-up, like Elton’s touring band of 1970-71, which featured Nigel Olsson on drums and Dee Murray on bass.  Burnett attended one of Elton’s historic Troubadour concerts in Los Angeles the week of August 25, 1970, the series of shows which made EJ a star, as they say, overnight.  As Elton enthusiasts know, his trio flooredjaded, music industry heavies.  Elton, with his voice and piano in the forefront, amazed his audience without special effects or gimmicks.  He didn’t even dress up (much) for this gig. With Nigel and Dee, he simply brought his songs to life through ingenious musicianship, and the sort of breast-beating vigor he still summons today, at age 66.

So T Bone Burnett now gives us the real Elton, the unadorned Elton, the barely accompanied Elton, the Elton who has not an unmusical cell in his body. His lyricist of 46 years, Bernie Taupin (who now prefers to be known as a “storyteller”), once remarked, “Elton is the most musical person I’ve ever met.  It vibrates from him.”  And those vibrations sent tremors that shook the recording studio; T Bone welcomed them, nurtured them, captured them – in analog – and now it is our privilege to let them settle into our generally unmusical lives, bringing us joy, tears and plenty of tingly moments.

Elton has played piano on all of his albums, with the exception of the Complete Thom Bell Sessions (released in 1989 but dating from 1977) and the unfortunate 1979 disco release, Victim of Love. He has titillated us, made us laugh, got us dancing, or made us mourn with that piano.  But compared to The Diving Board, Elton’s other albums seem almost devoid of piano, seem like aural adaptations of the “Where’s Waldo” game: “Where’s Elton?”

Past producers, including, occasionally, Elton himself, have more often than not treated his piano as just part of the band.  An electric guitar or saxophone solo was perhaps likelier than a piano interlude in the middle of any given recording.  Sometimes, even when you knew the piano was there, it was barely audible.

Elton chose noted bass guitarist Raphael Saadiq for the Diving Board sessions. Jay Bellerose on drums, who played on The Union, completes the trio.  Other instruments enter the recording unobtrusively, like a garnish or brush of color.  Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser, the two members of 2Cellos, who have toured with Elton as well as on their own, make their strings purr in spots.  For a couple of songs, the twang of a pedal steel hovers shyly in the air.  Horns slide in warmly a few times.  Backing vocalists join here and there.  Otherwise, it’s just Elton and the keys.

It’s evident on The Diving Board that T Bone pushed or encouraged Elton to be, in the recording studio, what he is onstage – a master of keyboard improvisation, a vocal powerhouse.  Burnett gives us the Elton of the deep, lower register, that sexy lower register heard only sparingly on latter-day recordings.  On The Diving Board, it dominates, especially on “Oscar Wilde Gets Out,” “My Quicksand,” “Home Again” and the title track, “The Diving Board.” 

Taupin has come through with possibly the most exciting set of lyrics – or stories – he’s handed Elton in many years, if not ever.  There is a knowingness in Taupin’s words, from having actually lived life, that is missing from much of his most famous word-paintings, since, as a young man, he was largely writing not from life, but from books and his mind’s eye. With his increased insight come lines and imagery of special elegance.

Peeling away the layers that have hidden Elton’s genius in varying degrees for far too long, T Bone gives us the complete music man, as close to unvarnished as possible, as Captain Fantastic animates Taupin’s words in an Elton John album like no other, the least commercial of his career, and the most daring.

Now we turn to the songs.

Oceans Away:  This track, a gorgeously elegiac album-opener, featuring just piano and voice, is a vastly superior update of Tumbleweed Connection’s “Talking Old Soldiers” (1971). In “Oceans Away,” Taupin seems to have spent real time with nonagenarian World War Two vets reminiscing about “those that flew, those that fell, the ones that had to stay, beneath a little wooden cross, oceans away.”

Oscar Wilde Gets Out:  The noted 19th century Irish writer – his most familiar work being The Picture of Dorian Grey – who was imprisoned in England for being gay and, just a few years after his release, died in Paris, young (only 46), miserable and destitute, comes alive in this dramatic track.  Elton’s music takes several gut-wrenching turns, leaving the listener emotionally spent by the end. On this and several other tracks, Funk Brother Jack Ashford’s percussion block, most famously heard in Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” comes through, as lonely and haunting as the echoing clank of a prisoner’s ball and chain.

A Town Called Jubilee: What is this song about? A farm family made homeless by foreclosure, moving to a better place, a new town serving as their “jubilee”? Or have they passed to the Great Beyond? It’s hard to say. But the rustic setting, a junk-filled yard, auctioneers playing cards, and an old black dogare gently swept along in Elton’s pleasing tide of jazzy, gospel chord progressions, with a bit of bluegrass guitar politely asserting itself in the background.

The Ballad of Blind Tom:  This tells the true story of Blind Tom Wiggins, a sightless, autistic African-American, first a slave and then barely free, who brought fame to himself and fortune to his one-time owner as a piano-playing wizard, entertaining VIPs across America and Europe.  “I may be an idiot/I may be a savant/I didn’t choose this life for me/But it’s somethin’ that I want.”  Elton’s driving, classically-tinged playing suggests a performance by Blind Tom himself.

Dream # 1:  The first of three brief, piano-only instrumentals, which Elton improvised in one take, this serves, wittingly or not, as the perfect outro to “Blind Tom,” with its clever integration of antebellum melodicism and Jim Crow-era ragtime.

My Quicksand: An unlucky person laments getting sucked into a life-draining relationship.  “My quicksand/Welcome to my final stand/I went to Paris once/I thought I had a plan/I woke up with an accent/I went up in quicksand.”  Elton sings theatrically, but in a 1950s torch song sort of way. He is wry, regretful, a nearly-willing victim. A smoky, jazz piano break, caressed by Jay Bellerose’s intimate drum brush, is the romantic slow dance.  But descending chords emulate the fatal scene in which the protagonist is swallowed whole.

Can’t Stay Alone Tonight: This is the best country song the John/Taupin songwriting team has ever composed. In its witty sophistication and friendly, down-home imagery, it outdoes ‘em all:  “Country Comfort,”  “Texan Love Song,”  “Dixie Lily,”  “Turn the Lights Out When You Leave.”  They are all plebeian efforts next to this one.  Toby Keith, George Strait, take note. You could learn a thing or two. “Can’t Stay Alone Tonight” makes you want to get out your cowboy boots and ten-gallon hat, even if you don’t have any, and find the nearest country dance hall, even if you don’t live near one.  “Things have to change/And they might,” Elton sings brightly over his rollicking country piano licks.  And you believe it.

Voyeur:  This is the cream of a very abundant crop, the song worth the CD purchase price all by itself.  You wouldn’t think that a mid-tempo ballad about voyeurism would literally grab you by the collar, shake you up and leave you sprawling in a strangely seductive back alley, but that’s what this song does. Is it about a pervert who gets his jollies sneaking glimpses of embracing lovers through a keyhole or from behind a curtain? Is it about government spying? Either way, you’ll love every minute of it, every titillating melodic turn.  Have a warm compress handy if you need calming afterward.

Home Again:  The moving first radio single from the album, it is a mini-epic, a five-minute cinematic, anguished longing for home, for the past, for whatever it is that makes one feel that need to return to one’s roots.  It’s sad – thus, bluesy – and Elton’s sweeping piano chords wash the song in symphonic tones.  “We all dream of leaving/But wind up in the end/Spending all our time trying to get back home again.”

Take This Dirty Water:  The simplest song of the bunch, it’s an infectious, straight-up African-American gospel ditty with cheerful, staccato expressions on the blacks-and-whites, a churchy, muscle-flexing lead vocal and a mischievous back-up chorus of oo-hoos, all of which put a broad smile on your face well before the end.

Dream # 2:  Elton’s second instrumental, slightly longer than the first, full of classical introspection, forms the perfect introduction to the next song.

The New Fever Waltz: Some may notice a faint resemblance here to “Grandma’s Song” in Elton’s West End theatrical smash, Billy Elliot: The Musical, but it’s really a gripping update of “Where To Now, St. Peter?” the fan favorite from Tumbleweed Connection.  Instead of taking a “blue canoe” to the world beyond this mortal coil, as do the U.S. Civil War dead in “St. Peter,” we join a World War One cavalry soldier, dying from the flu or some other untreatable infection in that pre-penicillin age (“I was shaking with a fever/When the last horse went down”).  He glides from this life in graceful waltz steps (“Shaking with a fever/Before the white flag flew/And the ballroom opened up to us and the dancers danced on through.”)  It’s impossible not to tear up.

Mexican Vacation (Kids in the Candlelight):  After the consummated tragedy of “The New Fever Waltz,” one gladly joins Elton on a fierce, blues-inflected boogie-woogie kick through a pending societal shift.  Whether referring to young, would-be beneficiaries of the DREAM Act (the U.S. immigration bill languishing in Congress), or Occupy Wall Street activists, or a procession of Wide-Awakes during the 1860 presidential campaign, “Mexican Vacation” gives EJ a chance to showcase some of the rockingest chops and bluesiest growling ever to reverberate off the walls of a recording studio.

Dream # 3:  This is the longest of the three instrumentals, and the most illuminating, as EJ veers into Keith Jarrett territory.  Elton isn’t known for playing abstract jazz, but listen to this and you’ll think that’s what he’s been doing all of his life.  Drummer Jay Bellerose taps a clever counterpoint to EJ’s spontaneous musings.

The Diving Board:  This is some song, this title track, bursting with feeling, a misty mix-up of jazz, blues and country, and somewhat of a “prequel” to the 1976 John/Taupin jazz ballad, “Idol,” from Blue Moves.  In interviews, Elton has said that “The Diving Board” is about young stars – like Justin Bieber and Lindsay Lohan – who struggle with newfound, mind-boggling fame.  “Sink or swim/I can’t recall who said that to me/When I was 16 and full of the world and its noise.”  Elton’s powerful vocal, a bit Tony Bennett, a bit Frank Sinatra, tops anything else he’s ever recorded in his very long, very accomplished career.

So there you have it.  My album rating:  at least 10 stars!

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 last book, Birdwatcher: the Life of Roger Tory Peterson, is publicized on her web site:

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