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30 Dec 2013

Following "The Diving Board" Across The World

United States
N. 4 (11 Weeks)
Position: 4 - 10 - 26 - 27 - 41 - 75 - out

N. 7 (11 Weeks)
Position: 7 - 11 - 25

United Kingdom
N. 3 (11 Weeks)
Position: 3 - 13 - 25 - 42 - 71 - 86 - 75 - out

N. 26 (1 Week)
Position: 26 - out

New Zealand
N. 20 (3 Weeks)
Position: 20 - 36 - out - 35

N. 14 (2 Weeks)
Position: 14 - 58 - out

N. 29 (7 Weeks)
Position: 29 - 68 - 83 - 119 - 118 - 155 - 193 - out

N. 11 (2 Weeks)
Position: 11 - 47 - out

N. 33 VL(10 Weeks)N. 20 WA(11 Weeks)
Position: 110 - 33 - 65 - 93 - 103 - 160 - 137 - out - 197 - 193 - 185 (VL) / 192 - 20 -32 - 39 - 60 - 55 - 118 - 119 - out - 131 - 154 - 146 (WA)

N. 7 (6 Weeks)
Position: 7 - 20 - 26 - 41 - 59 - 86 - out

N. 13 (3 Weeks)
Position: 13 - 59 - 71 - out

N. 22 (3 Weeks)
Position: 22 - 74 - 96 - out

N. 12 (5 Weeks)
Position: 12 - 27 - 46 - 75 - 71 - out

N. 36 (3 Weeks)
Position: 36 - 59 - 90 - out

N. 10 (5 Weeks)
Position: 10 - 10 - 20 - 33 - 37 - out

N. 42 (1 Weeks)
Position: 42 - out

N. 6 (4 Weeks)
Position: 6 - 18 - 28  - 37 - out

N. 27 WA (3 Weeks)
Position: 50 - 30 - 27 - out

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.

15 Nov 2013

Claude Bernardin Rides Again........ (Part One)

“A Tremendous Leap Of Faith”: The Diving Board, The New Album by Elton John Review by Author, Artist - Claude W. Bernardin, 11/10/13 

A determinedly devout fan of the music of the 1970’s, I was a young witness to the talents and rise from total obscurity of Rock Legend Elton John. It was the singer-songwriter Era, and of all the albums a young teenager could buy, I was always saving my best for the next album by Elton. The guy churned them out non-stop for five years, every six months a new studio album to hold and cherish. The Music ripped, it shone, it even glowed….Not one performer could catch his tail winds, he was a barnstormer alright, and you either caught that train, or it left you eating his dust. 

I loved every aspect of the Glamor, the glitz, the melodies, the electricity of it all. The lyrics were my own Poetry, I owned them, poured over them. The Liner notes, I used to use a magnifying glass and read every word over and over again. By the time 1974’s Captain Fantastic came out, we were buying two and three copies of each album, one to play, one to never open, one to plaster a bedroom walls with. 

But the dream had to end. It came to a screeching mind numbing stop in the Fall of 1976, for reasons a million times over we all know well. Sadly, the late 70’s and 1980’s would be troubling times for a fan of this guy. We fans stood by him, as much as could humanly be expected, but it’s hard to admit you like a gay guy in a Donald Duck suit singing “Crocodile Rock” now isn’t? But we did! 

By 1995, The Legend was kind of faded, for me. The World had just granted him a Hit in “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” and The Disney Film, “The Lion King. But I was beginning to struggle with the music. It just didn’t have the same salt and pepper that I’d grown up with. What was even worse I had just met the man in Columbus, Ohio. He was pleasant, vibrant, caring, thoughtful…and all I wanted to say was….”Dude….What’s with the music? What’s going on these days? Your albums are like roller coaster rides of Highs and lows….” But I couldn’t muster it. He was a complete gentleman, and I was in awe. That day he and I shared some very nice pleasantries. One particular conversation focused on my favorite song of his, “Talking Old Soldier”. I soon realized we shared a similar love for the song. At this particular moment, having just published a book entitled, “Rocket Man: The Music of Elton John from A to Z” I hardly saw myself as some kind of Public Enemy Number One in the Life and Music of this Great Legend. But two years later, after the death of My Mother and Father, I found the Internet, and decided, TRUTH must prevail! I opened up my Great big mouth and began singing the Billy Joel tune, “Honesty is such a lonely word…” ! I figured it was high time we saved this man from a life of downward spirals, inconsistent music output and so off I went. I am none too proud of those moments today. In fact I am embarrassed by them, and would apologize for them if the chance were to ever arise. I was wrong. A fan is just that, and so if I had fallen off the Star, and the Star no longer twinkled, it still wasn’t right. 

I guess for me, this is my way of paying that back now. If nothing else, I certainly owe Bernie Taupin, Nigel Olsson, Davey Johnstone, and Elton John this much. I mean these guys were And still are Legends. I’m just a shcmuck from wherever America. But I had been there, I had flown to Legendary-Halls in Nashville, Columbus, Boston, New York. I had seen him and his band for decades, standing at the edge of 17,000 fans playing the King. The 2 – 3 hour Power House sets, The Lit candle encores, The Thundering applause, the Clamoring to stage for an autograph. I knew the ups and downs on any given night, the truth behind, “Bad Sushi” in New Jersey, and yet, as the years progressed, It seemed odd to me that the same stage magic and energy, was disappearing on every studio album he’d release. Don’t get me wrong, I found the odd track to love, “Cry To Heaven”, “One More Arrow”, Burning Buildings”, “The One”, “Blue Avenue”, “No More Valentines”, “Wake Up Wendy”. 

There was a hopeful glimmer in 1989 with the release of “Sleeping With The Past”, but that didn’t seem to do enough to resurrect the Historic Electric Light of a Rock N Roll Legend. Somehow it all seemed a bit sad to me. Like the game was over, And The Legend was walking off the field for the one and final time. He had left his mark, No one could surely argue to the contrary that The songs of John and Taupin did not live up to the Statuesque Grandeur of Springsteen, Simon, Lennon and McCartney. 

Oh, but time waits for no one, not even Elton John. And as the years blitzed by, we would see again and again a little glimmer of the old self, but soon we’d see it lapse back in to a state of hibernation or worse, obscurity. Some of it just wasn’t fair. 2001’s “Songs From The West Coast” , for instance, was a brilliant effort, that matched The absolute best of this songwriting teams 1970’s classics. But the World was too busy reeling from 9-11, and the death of Princess Di, to notice. Album after album would be treated to a quick hello, some fan and critical praise, and then back to the shadows of the record bins they’d go. The tours as well, would be littered with the memories of a few new gems, here today, gone tomorrow the mantra of the day. Many times, I admit now , I began to fade off myself into new musicians, settling down with the likes of Tori Amos, Ben Folds, John Mellencamp, even dare I admit this Bruce Springsteen ( shudder ), for a different musical fix. I suppose you could say I needed something more. BY the mid- 2000’s, I had settled on only one studio album in his illustrious career, 1976’s “Blue Moves”. Why you may ask, wasn’t it reviewed back then as a HUGE career disappointment? Yes I suppose it was, but for me….it was the exact moment the Man, his words, his melodies, his arrangements, his Production fell into a dark cold vacuous wasteland. I needed to understand it, to hopefully fathom its deepest depths, to come to terms with its inevitable brilliance and weaknesses. And so I did just that, day in, day out the album played. And I fell in love with its every nuance. I longed for an album as rich, as passionate, as creative, as self-expressive, and still nothing seemed to quite measure up. 

In 2009/2010 The Union was released, featuring Leon Russell, paired with Elton. My Two Childhood Piano Gods back in the saddle once again, what were the chances of this happening? Was God really listening up there? Was he as much a fan of that Rock magic, as I had been in 1970? Now I may be an old fool, but I knew there was no way we were going to “MATCH” the energy of “11/17/70” or “Amoreena” and “Roll Away The Stone” or “Delta Lady”, I mean come on! They were in their 20’s! But the album did not disappoint. For me personally it remains a career milestone for both musicians. It had wonderful, honest moments. Touching moments. And songs that clearly rose to the “Style” of their heyday. I could want very little than that. It made me smile daily as I played this CD, and I would say softly, “Isn’t life grand when music like this is made with such love?” I let all the battles the die-hard fans had about who would play on what, and why this wasn’t featured on that? Left it all in the dust. I had what I had needed, I had passion once again…and it was all over that record, no I had two things…Passion…and Total soul opened to the stars “Honesty”, once again…..and it was breath taking music . It still is, when the CD is allowed to occupy my CD player in my truck. But I was fine with it, I figured this was it, like that clip of Leon…saying in to a camera….”That’s all folks” and the camera pans back for one long fade away shot down a dimly lit hall. 

In 2013, the news broke, we were to ready ourselves for new product that just “MIGHT” be better than that album. Better? I was cynical to say the least, been there, heard this before. Well this long awaited album, even went through several studio sessions, and several name changes, THESE were signs of greatness???? I was sure that this was Elton and Bernie’s, “High Noon”, like Gary Cooper, Personally compelled to stare down the barrel of his past shadows, defiant but still terribly weakened by his own demons. And what were they…1. The singer hated working long hours in a recording studio, this was evident now after all these years and all those interviews. 2. Neither lyricist or musician seemed willing to recognize they had a heavy weight hanging around their necks, 1973’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”! Comparisons were going to be natural. 3. His voice, the guy who sang “Blues…. Ooowwwhhh , Owwhs…” In Yellow Brick Road, that was this guy? His voice was surely in question, too road weary, too shagged out. So we waited, and we waited…..and finally, The day arrived, September 24th. The release of “The Diving Board” was a career achievement! Both musician, and lyricist had created another Masterpiece, a magnificent body of work – A Stephen Foster/Nina Simone/William Faulkner-esque montage of gritty New Orleans blues, smoky jazz clubs, and pure AMERICANA – fuel injected by the brilliant cinematic visage and storytelling of Bernie Taupin. The songwriting team of John and Taupin handed us the musical equivalent of Thornton Wilder’s classic 1930’s , “Our Town”. Who said Rock N Roll was only for teenagers? That was then…this is now! Those words of 1973, on “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” had finally proven to be prophetic: “Oh, I’ve finally decided my future lies…beyond the Yellow Brick Road!” 

And apparently they discovered their future down the back roads of American History.
(Continued on Parts two and three)

29 Sept 2013

The Master Expertises (V): David Sigler

The Diving Board: Four Stars Out Of Five

By David Sigler

Long time Elton fans like myself, know the list of great songs from albums that have gotten overshadowed by the big hits. A lot of those songs aren’t necessarily radio friendly either, which is why they weren’t chosen as singles in the first place. So, in the case of The Diving Board, we have an album that presents itself with a “damn the radio singles” attitude and instead, are treated to songs that both Elton and lyricist Bernie Taupin simply want to write. Of course, after 40 some years and 30 plus albums of writing classic pop songs, Elton can’t help to still write catchy melodies but on this album, only a couple stand out to me as potential radio hits.

And that is a very good thing. Because, now, with this album, we’re seeing a return to some of the songwriting style that established Elton and Bernie in the very early 1970s. The Diving Board shares a lot of history with those early Elton John albums in style, mood and piano playing but also brings something very new and unique to the Elton John catalog. For instance, the lead off song, Taupin’s lyric about World War Two veterans, Ocean’s Away, reads like a poem set to music:

Call ‘em up, dust ‘em off, let ‘em shine
The ones who hold onto, the ones they had to leave behind
Those that flew, those that fell, the ones that had to stay
Beneath a little wooden cross oceans away

With only Elton’s piano on Ocean’s Away, and his wonderful arrangement, from the start, you know this album is going to be different. Oscar Wilde Gets Out, is yet another fitting tribute song that Elton and Bernie have done so well. Taupin’s tale of the literary giant’s fall from grace for committing a “love that dare not speak it’s name”, is right up there with previous classics, such as the 1973 Marilyn Monroe ode Candle In The Wind, and the John Lennon dedication, Empty Garden from 1982.

Other highlights include the joyous A Town Called Jubilee, which has some fine slide guitar work (of which the guitar reminds me a bit of 5th Avenue Heartache by the Wallflowers) and could have easily been included on 2004s Peachtree Road. On The Ballad Of Blind Tom, for me, is Taupin at his best. The story about a slave who can play piano, is worthy of anything Elton and Bernie have recorded. Elton has delivered an incredibly haunting, edgy melody that has a real element of suspense.

Voyeur, another stand out track, features Elton providing more interesting and challenging chord changes that keeps you guessing. That’s not to say their isn’t a chorus, but the way the song shifts and drops you back into the chorus is quite entertaining. And the ending features some eerie piano riffs that remind me of the Mike Oldfield classic, Tubular Bells from the film, The Exorcist. While, Home Again, is a wonderfully touching song about leaving something to only discover what you’d lost and subsequently, desire to have it back.

Want a little of that old school, bluesy piano playing by Elton? Well, you’ll get your fill on Can’t Stay Alone Tonight, a cross between 1983s hit, I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues and a song from the 1989 album, Sleeping With The Past (I Never Knew Her Name). Mexican Vacation (Kids In The Candlelight) and Take This Dirty Water further that great tradition of blues and gospel influenced piano playing that Elton does so well.

The Diving Board isn’t perfect however. Some songs feel a little like outtakes from some of Elton’s Broadway shows. My Quicksand for instance, reminds me of something from 2005s Lestat musical. My Quicksand is my least favorite track, but the song has a very unexpected jazzy piano interlude, similar to 1976s song Idol from Blue Moves, minus the saxophone. New Fever Waltz, sways gently back and forward, as the title would suggest and seems like it could be from the 2008 musical, Billy Elliott. This isn’t necessary a bad thing either but it does sound very familiar. Melody wise, this album is a blend of his most recent albums with a dash of theatrical staging that sometimes seem over reaching (take the title track, a cabaret style song that goes over the top with Elton straining over such lines as “the planets ahhhh-light, thoooooose dizzy heiiiiiiights” -my emphasis).

Piano interludes (Dream #1, #2 and #3), solely written by Elton, are unexpected as they give Elton a chance to expand his piano playing finesse. Speaking of the piano, this album is one of the best illustrations of showcasing Elton’s piano playing upfront. You’ll hear every note!

The Diving Board has a consistent sound about it and thanks must be given to producer T. Bone Burnett. Burnett also produced the album, The Union from 2010 (in which Elton teamed up with his idol, Leon Russell). Here, Burnett assembled just a small trio of musicians (basically, drums, bass and piano), with the occasional guitar or organ in the background, to great effect. For further proof of how in sync everyone is on this album, be sure to check out the three outtakes, available on some deluxe editions. 5th Avenue, Guaguin Goes Hollywood and Candlelit Bedroom – all three are equally as strong as anything on the album and should have been on the album.

The Diving Board is determined to make you pay attention to the songwriting craft of Elton and Bernie. Now, four decades in, it’s still great to have them and producing quality work. Sure, Elton’s voice is deeper and sometimes his enunciations aren’t as clear as they used to be, but he has delivered again. Along with Taupin’s incredible short stories, masquerading as brilliant lyrics, The Diving Board will earn it’s proper place in the canon of classic Elton John albums.

David Sigler, host

Two Rooms: Celebrating The Music Of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Every Sunday at midnight on WOMR

A year round Provincetown resident, David Sigler‘s passion and knowledge for Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s music makes him a renowned fan in the Elton die-hard circles. Ever since he heard Bennie and the Jets in 1974, a special bond was formed. “Next to Lennon and McCartney, John and Taupin are among the most talented, prolific, and diverse songwriters in pop music,” he proudly states. David is thrilled to host, Two Rooms: Celebrating The Music of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, to enlighten listeners of their respective work together and independently. David originally hails from Maryland and is a lifelong Baltimore Orioles and Baltimore Ravens fan (though he cheers on the Patriots too!) In addition to Two Rooms, he enjoys hosting a show called Pop Life: Top 40 Hits from 1970-2000, when the need arises.

20 Sept 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.
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.