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20 Nov 2013

Claude Bernardin Rides Again (Parts Two & Three)

“A tremendous leap of faith: The Diving Board, the New Album by Elton John – review by Author, Artist – Claude W. Bernardin, 11/10/13

“Caddy got the box and set it on the floor and opened it. It was full of stars. When I was still, they were  still. When I moved, they glinted and sparkled. I hushed.” – William Faulkner

I chose this quote to open the Second segment of this article, because of the last four sentences…they expressed best, how I felt from the moment I peeled back the cellophane and placed this CD into my player….”It was full of stars…”.

There is another even more appropriate: “ I decline to accept the demise of a Man…”

After hearing this album through, that is exactly what I was saying to myself. Ohhh, the World had its views and opinions, and thanks to facebook I stumbled into those chats and rooms. I’m not exactly sure what demons need dusting out for those people who have not warmed to this album. I understand old homey comfort zones like where is “The Band”? I recognize their longing for a return to some long lost style of 1982 or even further back to 1972, but I had long ago, given up “My Needs”, what I wanted over the past 15 years for Elton and Bernie the most, was not my needs as much as what were their needs? What I wanted, frankly amounted to some bizarre fan based self-centered, opinion or longing unfilled, many hundreds or thousands had those, and on some we agreed, and some we didn’t. I really didn’t care, it wasn’t about me being right, or they being wrong or vice versa, I knew what we needed here, was honesty. What did “they” , this wonderful songwriting team need after all these years? I actually had imagined, they needed or actually wanted nothing. I was convinced they had achieved satisfaction, never a good place to be as a viable, creative, passionate artist moving forward. Satisfaction breeds complacency. “No direction home… lose direction….and negativity lands”

Since day one with this album’s release, I have played on their terms….this session was NOT at all about my or “our” needs, this one was about Elton John and Bernie Taupins needs. And what harm was there in allowing that? Hadn’t they already handed us some 35 studio albums? Couldn’t one or two of those be allowed to be done for their needs more than the fans? I answered absolutely! If you didn’t… fair enough…you deal with your needs your way. I found tremendous solace with my commitment.

This September, ( 2013 ), John’s Testament arrived as “The Diving Board”. Filled with romance, and the occasional bow to the American frontier, the album dramatically proved it was a major body of work. The music, let alone the words, far outstripped and overwhelming conveyed the composers passion and glorified Taupins words. It was instantly clear that this magnificent album would go a long, long way to reawakening a substantial group of critics who for far too many years had simply dismissed this songwriting team as Tin Pan Alley Pop fluff writers.

The song titles alone were intriguing and stunning: “Oscar Wilde Gets Out”, “Oceans Away”, The Ballad of Blind Tom”, “Voyeur”, “Town of Jubilee” – and they expressed a specific Hollywood and Vine meets Everyman force. Titles that could be that, of Great American Novels. But these titles did another thing, they suggested we just might have to prepare ourselves for something new, something on a more Epic scale than the usual “La La La La La La’s” and “I’m Still Standing, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’s” that we had so often become accustomed in the last few decades. Yes, if John was nothing more, he was most certainly his own Motown/Stax infused Soul-tinged Pop Hits Factory and by the mid-1980’s The machine had actually seen Taupins words to fruition: “Churn ‘em out thick and fast…” ( Ref. – “Bitter Fingers, Captain Fantastic, 1974 )

Pop music is catchy, fun, clever, witty, entertaining, cute, fuzzy….foot and toe tapping and financially always wise. It can even be good ( as in “Tiny Dancer”, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” ), But there was much more to this teams talents than that. Rock music, not Pop, is darker, shadowy, revealing, thought provoking, in-depth, romantic, glorious. One cannot use a word “Glorious” for “Benny and The Jets”. No harm intended there, love Benny, but now “Funeral For a Friend and Love Lies Bleeding” , “Grey Seal”, “Candle In The Wind” they are “Glorious. We hadn’t heard this side of Elton and Taupin much on the later albums. A few things sparkled then fizzled out. Some might even refer to these songs as Epics….I might, and would. I imagine it must be almost impossible to sit down in a studio and write Pop Happy entertaining songs and then immediately shift gears into Dark, and Glorious. So now maybe we get and understand why this album took two totally different studio sessions to create?

The composer refers to this process “ As More Eltonized”… I like that phrase, but I think to be fair….More Epic! These are not “Sad Songs”….why? Cause they simply…”Say So Much!” To be fair, do we miss the happy, "Teacher I Need You” and “I’m Still Standing” Elton John? Of course we do. Like a fun old friend that’s sadly moved away. But back again after all these years comes another, and we forgot just how powerful and passionate that friend was. That friend deeply touches our soul. I have said one cannot compare the Elton John from 1972 to the present day man, it just isn’t even a fair thing to do. Those periods are too far removed from each other. You either rode the ride or didn’t to understand the entire journey. We’ve been down that road a million times, I won’t go down it again. What we have today, is something new, Epic and Glorious. Different? Yes. Similar? Of course….Familiar? Well sort of…but also quite original. This new batch of songs is performed dramatically and carried off with great authority by Elton’s command of his piano. It is this instrument that drives each song forward, and impeccably played at the top of his craft. It is a showcase of mature musicianship and self-expression, ultimately poetic, and at times deeply penetrating. And what of Mr. Taupin? Taupins strength has always been his fanciful vision, his deft introspection and ability ( Like Joni Mitchell ) to chronicle the Americana, and pathos of human dilemma, pain and shattered illusion. In fact he is so at home within it he can simply make up patterns of words and make you believe their sentiments, as in the case of the albums center piece, “My Quicksand”. The song quite frankly, has about much deep meaning as 1970’s “Take Me To The Pilot”. What Pilot? Why? What quicksand? Who did what to whom and why? Does it really matter? Sometimes words dance on a page, and simply shimmer…the Poet goes with that….nurtures it along. Taupin knows to add a little urgency and intensity, show a soul in conflict and whammo we got’em reel them in! But these lyrics…are more than even that one moment, these words reveal a sense of spiritual quest, and aging dreamer, a brooding artist. An emptiness, longing, an aching to return to some distant past, away from a changing more alienated society. 

“If I could go back home, If I could go back home, If we never leave, we’d never have known…we all dream of leaving, but wind up in the end…spending all our time, trying to get back home again.” (- Home Again, Bernie Taupin ) 

Together John and Taupin are best when their rough-hewn songs are refined, economic, and steeped in traditional Pop music. But at their deepest center, these two guys are absolutely plugged in to the sophistication, moral complexity and alienation of humanity. That fact is so sadly and often overlooked, because John is so adept at his craft. Melodies seem to flow out of him at command, and within seconds. But Taupins spirit can get buried under all that electric instrumentation. Example: “This Song Has No Title”. We forget such lovely words, when we are surrounded in super Orchestral Whirls and electronic retorts that shine all over “Yellow Brick Road”. Here on “The Diving Board”, we don’t gloss over those sentiments so rapidly. Yes, John’s gorgeous sweeping melodies enfold and almost enrapture us, ( as in “The Voyeur” ), but we still sense the darkness underneath, the emptiness, the reflective. “Where elicit lovers park….”. Their greatest songs have a romantic grandeur at their core – love on the streets of LA, The dust and dirt of the ranch life of the Old West, the quest for truth and answers, Faith, wrestling with demons, survival, the ambiguity of a relationship, the wisdom of the past, the All – American Dream. We have come to know these men well through the years, even their imaginary or real life experiences, their dangers, their feelings of abandonment, loss, regrets and hopes. And to think ..? All of this in a Pop song ? …Yes! And it is the same now as it was then…it’s even in “Levon” and “Crocodile Rock” if ya ever took the time to notice.

What is amazing is that John has brought all this to bare again this late in to his career, when let’s face it MOST would have him quietly touring the world sufficiently bowing and running through two hours of the same Hits he played the night before and the year before that. We like our dreams neatly wrapped up, a bit decorated, and safe. This album is anything but safe, it is a Huge Creative Leap forward for this songwriting team, and a successful one at that. Early on I said I almost gave up, and went back to 1976’s “Blue Moves”. Well This The Bookend of that. It is the long hard road, now come home, and setting the record straight. Yes, it is missing some old and Dear friends. We all would have loved to see Nigel Olsson’s name in the credits, or Davey Johnstone’s name, or John Jorgenson, but it wasn’t to be. For reasons only Elton might explain. I have my take, he Just needed to be real, truthful, and focused. He needed to get back home again…HE …needed this, and it therefor had to be his Private Journey creatively. From here the view is now clearer, so is the road. Maybe now, the door can reopen for all those friends and names from his past to re-enter and re-enliven other sessions. I’m hopeful. And I do want that.

But in another sense, in-order for Elton to write another Epic, maybe just maybe it had to be done as only one can do, for himself. He had to put to rest some personal demons, and maybe even comparisons that were constantly being drawn to 1973.

The albums opener sets the stage for everything that will follow. From the second the piano notes march out, “Ocean’s Away” loudly and proudly proclaims…”Ok, remember in 1995, when we talked about how wonderful “Talking Old Soldiers” was? Remember that Elton? Remember how you admitted to me how it was one of your all time favorite songs and that’s why you didn’t do it live so much for the fear you might begin to tire of it, and to preserve its memory? Remember how I talked of the quality and power and emotion in that vocal, the beauty of the words, their sentiments, that gorgeous piano accompaniment? Remember? Remember?

And the answer came back loud and clear….”Call em up! Dust ‘em off! Let ‘em shine!!!!” Well does it, shines like A Great Ocean with World War II Fighters buzzing all around. It is a wonderful album opener, and it is a Modern Instant Classic!

Part 3:

Some claim “Epic” comes down to just the sound of a song, I disagree. I believe it is all inclusive. Sound, yes…lyrics, instruments, performance, melody and voice. This album comes from some place of heart within Elton John that one would have thought, hadn’t that fire and determination long ago burned out ? It suggests that such effort has allowed this songwriting partnership to re-focus, with such depth, that with the guidance of Producer T. Bone Burnett – they have indeed created –Something old, something new, something borrowed, something “Blues”…and we are the lucky receivers. The “Diving Board is work that is fearless, striking, formative, and beautiful. It sings with an unspoiled rich and radiant honesty, perhaps never before presented so deeply on record or CD. “Ocean’s Away” is the dictum that guides the album’s voice and direction, as well as its stories, as clearly as John’s piano marches forward through each beautifully executed lyrical line. Has Taupin ever written any lyric with such utter clarity and beauty as in… 

”They bend like trees in winter, those shuffling old gray lions…those snow-white stars still gather…” or “shoulder to shoulder, back in the day…sleeping bones that rest in earth…Ocean’s away…Oceans away…” 

In minutes I am pulled back through the years, across great lands and oceans to the moment I first heard “Talking Old Soldiers” in the winter of 1971. I am fortunate to have a World War II Vet as a Dear Friend. He still votes, he still works every day of his life. He is of the Older , “The Great Generation”…he is in his mid-90’s and on any day, ( and they are many…. that I sit and drink tea or have a shot of Wild Honey Turkey Whisky with him), I just let him rattle down the byways of History and life. So many lessons, and so much to learn still. He is everything Taupin says and more. In a way, as I listen to this song, I am Taupin, the kid – that’s what he calls me; And I look forward to these gatherings, honored to even sit at the same table with such a knowledgable, hard-working soldier. He makes me proud to be an American. This song makes me proud to be a fan of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Two Fine Men, paying back, giving to others, out of love, honor, hope, care, and adventure. Legends and Heroes, they say die young – but thankfully some die old. For we are the lucky to have witnessed their glory. Whether, Soldiers of the road, or Soldiers of Destiny. Within these tracks over and over, Taupin’s characters face obstacles, self-doubts and still rise up, survivors. They face War, heartache, public ridicule, racism, bigotry, terror and tragedy, the pain of loss, and somehow romanticize these pitfalls. “I was shaking with a fever, When the last good horse went down We were just a couple dancing, Where a thousand Kings were crowned Shaking with a fever before the white flag flew And the ballroom…”opened up to us And the dancers danced on through…” - As Elton John gorgeously laments in one of the albums, ( if not career ) milestone tracks. A waltz is not a style one thinks of for a rocker, but without a doubt the track is one of the prettiest moments in this songwriting teams career.

A deft observer of story-line may recognize a similarity in tone and style and content to 1971’s “Where To Now St. Peter?” but that is where all comparisons stop. In a way the song is say the perfect opener for a Musical about William Faulkner’s novel, “The Sound and The Fury”.

Once you venture forth into tracks, “Oscar Wilde” and “Blind Tom” and the piano and tambourine and drums establish a magical rhythm and theme, there, is an almost thundering sense of “Where have I heard this style before?”, but yes and no, yes maybe a bit of “Ticking” in 1974, yes maybe a bit of “Madman” but this emotion, this passion, those astounding piano frills, Taupins words, Elton’s voice, raw and deep on some tracks, light and airy on others, no, you haven’t heard this before…not really….this..THIS IS Elton John at his Top. His A Game: “Top of the World , Ma!!!!!!!” This what we have wanted him to sound like for decades! And THIS is what he wanted himself to sound like, as well. Maybe he was always waiting to Step into the Old Man’s shoes, Ray Charles passing has certainly allowed that door to open, and he fills it wonderfully.

Rock N Roll doesn’t have to be bombastic and blistering, flashy and loud, it can also be adventurous, and exhilarating, raw and deeply honest. This album is more alive, honest and passionate than almost any in his entire career. And the ride through every track has been an absolute refreshing delight for at least this fan. On this album, Elton and Bernie took everything they had in their hearts and made something better, more intoxicating, more gritty, more haunting. Realism has never sounded so good, especially on an Elton John record. Painterly Poetic, immersed in New Orleans jazz and Blues, the album shines like a tall cool glass of melting Ice cubes and golden whisky in the midnight neon glow of a Jazz club on Bourbon Street.

This isn’t the Pop or flash of 1980’s MTV, nope, thank god for that! It’s something much more mature, and most certainly more intelligent.

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