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12 Feb 2016

"Wonderful Crazy Night" Across The World: The Official Charts

United States
N. 8 (4 Weeks)
Position: 8 - 67- 157 -115

United Kingdom
N. 6 (5 Weeks)
Position: 6 - 18 - 38 - 63 - 88

N. 18 (1 Weeks)

N. 11 (2 Weeks)
Position: 11 - 31 

New Zealand
N. 11 (3 Weeks)
Position: 11 - 23 - 34

N. 35 (2Weeks)
Position: 35 - 96

N. 10 (3 Weeks)
Position: 10 - 

N. 8 (3 Weeks)
Position: 8 - 31 - 65

N. 26 VL(4 Weeks)N. 26 WA(5 Weeks)
Position: 26 - 76 - 70 - 172 (VL) / 26 - 47 - 78 - 79 - 83 (WA)

N. 7 (5 Weeks)
Position: 7 - 21 - 39 - 44 - 73

N. 43 (1 Weeks)

N. 41 (1 Week)

N. 15 (5 Weeks)
Position: 15 - 29 - 59 - 81 - 70

N. 32 (3 Weeks)
Position: 32 - 58 - 81

N. 17 (1 Weeks)

N. 15 (1 Weeks)

11 Feb 2016

The Master Class Series (IV): "Lots of Gusto, but Not Great" By Jim Turano

James Turano has worked in the Chicago media and arts for more almost 30 years as a radio personality, newspaper and magazine writer, columnist, reporter and editor, an executive in public relations, and, as an actor, with various theater groups in Chicago. He has been an Elton John fan for more than 43 years, and has attended more than 162 Elton John concerts throughout the U.S. and Europe.  He was a major contributing writer for 15 years with the pre-eminent Elton John fan magazine, East End Lights, which reached more than 2,000 fans around the world.  He has also co-hosted the magazine’s four “Elton Expo” conventions in Atlanta , Cleveland , Los Angeles and New York. Turano has interviewed many important players in John’s career including his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin, and original band members Davey Johnstone and Nigel Olsson.  He also wrote the liner notes for the award-winning 1998 album release, “Crop Circles,” by Johnstone and John Jorgenson, two guitarists in Elton John’s band, and contributed 40 album reviews to the book, “The Elton John Scrapbook.”  He was an original writer/contributor to Elton John’s official website,, and has written eight official Elton John tour programs (2003-2010), which have been sold at concerts throughout the world.

For his newest album, “Wonderful Crazy Night,” Elton John is wearing the widest, toothy smile he’s flashed on an album cover since 1974’s “Caribou.”  Back then, the giddy grin was one of youthful excitement, as, at 27, he was in throes of an incredible career apex that dominated radio airplay, topped every chart, and sold out venues at a record-breaking pace.  And he was basking in his status as the biggest star in the world.

Forty-two years later, that ebullient smile returns, but now is more due to a personal and emotional zenith, because at almost 69, he’s a happy husband, a doting father, and a man who has put his various demons aside, l happily telling anyone within earshot how much he’s enjoying life.

Not only does the cover of his latest, “Wonderful Crazy Night” (his 33rd studio album), reflect this consuming personal contentment, but the music itself exudes a newfound focus, determination, enthusiasm, and he as he describes it, “joyous” outlook.

Clearly, Elton’s late life exuberance rubbed off on many of the album’s key players – namely, his band and his co-producer, T Bone Burnett -- because “Wonderful Crazy Night” is one of the best sounding and best musically-performed albums of his five-decade career.  The entire band, led by musical director, Davey Johnstone, with drummer Nigel Olsson, percussionists Ray Cooper and John Mahon, keyboardist Kim Bullard, and bassist Matt Bissonette, brings its “A-game” to the studio.  It is showcased as both a tight-sounding, bonded musical unit and as individually-talented musicians, and all assist in delivering the album Elton set out to create.  The band is immersed and engaged in the sound of every track, and each member excels when given the opportunity to step forward.

Still, after reading the litany of glowing critical reviews and excited fan reactions comparing “Wonderful Crazy Night” to some of Elton’s best ‘70s albums, the more I listened, the more I wondered, “What am I missing?”  Finally, after days of intense listening, I realized, I’m not missing anything.  The album is. 

It’s missing that “classic track.” It’s missing that one song that instantly reminds you why you’re an Elton John fan.  That startling musical moment that makes you stop and demand repeated listens.  There’s at least one of those on every Elton John album (yes, even on “Leather Jackets”).  But as hard as I tried, and believe me, I tried, I didn’t hear it.  There are many songs here that want to be “it,” but they don’t rate.

Simply, “Wonder Crazy Night” does not approach the overall caliber of those historic ‘70s albums recorded during what Elton describes as his “golden era” from 1970-76.  And that’s not a knock.  How many albums by any artist can compare to most of those records?  But to trying to jam “Wonderful Crazy Night” into that esteemed class is disrespectful to Elton’s musical legacy.  And to compare “Wonderful Crazy Night” to even Elton’s most pop-oriented albums of the ‘70s, such as “Honky Chateau” or “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player” does a huge disservice to those excellent records. 

If anything, “Wonderful Crazy Night” is at home among Elton’s best album output during the 1980s.  Most of these MTV generation efforts were popish, high-energy, serviceable albums that gave Elton newfound footing in a new decade.  Though spotty in overall consistency, they did re-ignite Elton’s creative juices, eventually re-team him full-time with lyricist Bernie Taupin, and establish him with a new audience.

Placing “Wonderful Crazy Night” among “Jump Up!,” “Two Low For Zero,” “Breaking Hearts” or “Reg Strikes Back” is justifiable and in no way a slight.  Those albums, as well as “21 At 33,” “The Fox,” “Sleeping With The Past” and “Ice On Fire” had their share of appealing, and in some cases, notable songs.  After all, the ‘80s yielded several enduring Elton hits including “Blue Eyes,” “I’m Still Standing,” “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues,” “Sad Songs (Say So Much),” and “Sacrifice,” among others.

While I agree the new album may channel Elton’s ‘70s spirit and confidence, it is enthused hyperbole to elevate this new album among Elton’s best.   Given his age and upcoming career and lifestyle changes, there realistically may be only two or three studio albums left for Elton to make.  So at this point, I’m not looking for another “Jump Up!” or “Reg Strikes Back.”  I’m hoping for one more classic.  And as much as many would like to give it the benefit of the doubt, this isn’t it.

Their last great album was 2001’s “Songs From The West Coast,” and I believe they have that one more classic in them.  But it will take planning, dedication, and most of all, patience in the studio.  They must want to make something worthy to stand amongst their best work.  Taupin must write his lyrics from a place of pure inspiration, not break time between his next canvass.  Though historically impatient, Elton must take a breath and actually let his new music develop over time.  Though he prides himself in completing albums quickly, this rushed pace can eliminate the chance for happy accidents to occur in the studio.

For example, on “Wonderful Crazy Night,” the compelling musical interlude that ends “Claw Hammer” is better than the main melody of the actual song. Rather than an afterthought tagged on to the ending, perhaps, after discovering this arrangement, and with some time and consideration, Elton could have found a way to make the main melody more in that style.   It might have created a while new direction – and arguably a better direction for the song.  But because of some arbitrary “song a day schedule,” this interesting musical passage is relegated to a brief moment.
But, we must judge the album for it is, not what we hoped it would be or what it could have been. Ultimately, “Wonderful Crazy Night” is more gusto than great.

Gusto is good.  This album is an impressive over-achiever.  On every song it is trying hard; it wants to be more than it is; it is yearning to be better; and it is offering an abundance of musical enhancements and decorations to take it to a level higher than it can actually reach.  The intense effort and vigor can’t be denied and should be applauded.  However, the album feels like it’s all dressed up, but never gets to where it wants to go.

This gusto emanates from Elton and spreads to the band, who dominate this album to such a great extent, it could easily have billed as “The Elton John Band” as was the “Philadelphia Freedom” single in 1975.   Most notably, Davey Johnstone’s guitar is by far the album’s lead instrument, and Johnstone more than delivers on every song.  Perhaps it was because of his band’s stellar proficiency that Elton decided to use them on record for the first time in 10 years, as opposed as using producer Burnett’s usual cadre of quality studio musicians who appeared on the last two Burnett-produced studio albums.

However, Elton may have been too democratic and magnanimous on the production.  Too willing to be “just one of the guys in the band.”  Because it must be remembered, we go to an Elton John concert to see him sing and play the piano.  And we listen to an Elton John album to hear him sing and play the piano.  And as much as the band sounds great here, its presence is at times overwhelming and many times designates Elton to simply a vocalist.  And except for a few true piano pounders (the title track and “Looking Up”), when his piano is heard, it is for a few fleeting notes.  Often times, the piano is so low in the mixing it’s hardly audible.

Though all of Johnstone’s guitars solos are appropriately aggressive, tasteful, and perfectly complimentary, there are plenty of places where an Elton piano solo could have either followed a Johnstone solo, or played off of it.  There needed to be a Christopher Walken-like presence in the recording booth, whether it was Johnstone, Burnett, or even David Furnish, anyone -- demanding “More ‘88-keyed cowbell’!”

Another disappointment is more glaring.  Elton wisely decides to record again with his band after a 10-year absence in the studio, and yet, the album doesn’t feature even one “Nigel Olsson moment.”  Nigel’s drumming is sturdy and strong throughout this album, but he never gets to take a rightful bow in the spotlight.  The most obvious place for a “Nigel moment” would be on the album’s big ballad, “A Good Heart.” You know the “moment” I mean: one of Olsson’s patented, dramatic, climactic, booming drum fills that punctuates the song’s emotion and crescendo.  You’ve heard it on “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.”  You’ve heard it on “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”  You don’t hear it anywhere here.  It’s a wonderful, crazy, and unforgiveable missed opportunity.

But the main reason this album is obligated to work over-time on every track is the actual songs themselves don’t have the heft.

I admire Bernie Taupin, and believe he is one of the best lyricists in all of music history – and one of the most underrated – but the blame lies in his pen.  Taupin’s lyrics lack his signature imagery, cinematic scope, oblique metaphors and crisp allusions.  They are, instead, mostly straightforward in subject and structure.   And to make up for the void of lyrical depth, Elton, Burnett and the band are forced to add layers of instruments and sounds to make each song impress and sustain.  While the results make for some exciting musical performances by Elton and the band, they are omnipresent because of what Taupin failed to provide.

Granted, Elton asked Taupin to write lyrics that were optimistic and upbeat, but these lyrics don’t have an urgency or edge. They aren’t hacky or silly (No, thankfully there is no “I Am Your Robot” here) or sugary pop, but the best of Taupin’s unique writing style is missing.  Even on his most pop-slanted songs on “Honky Chateau” or “Don’t Shoot Me,” the words conveyed a razor-sharp attitude.  Comparatively, these lyrics have no real bite, leaving the album gumming away to cut through, and necessitating the music to compensate.

There is no “get about as oiled as a diesel train;” no “eat meat on a Friday, that’s alright, I even like steak on a Saturday night;” no “a cluster of night jars sang some songs out of tune;” no “you wore a little cross of gold upon your neck, I saw it as you flew between my reason;” no “subway’s no way for a good man to go down;” no “Blowing theater kisses, reciting lines they don’t understand;” no “she packed my bags last night, preflight.”

Taupin now considers himself a full-time painter and artist, and it’s refreshing to see him find a creative outlet that stirs his passions.  But his writing with Elton is his legacy.  It’s his legend.  And to fully return to his former lyrical heights, Taupin must concentrate more on painting better pictures with words than with acrylics.   Even upbeat pop can be smart, clever, and meaningful.  Taupin should know, he wrote “Philadelphia Freedom.”  Most of his “latest batch” are pedestrian or obvious.  And two songs out of 10 with “Wonderful” in the title? One of Taupin’s best lines is how Elton “manages to always come up with more hooks than a tackle box.”  Unfortunately, that musing is in Taupin’s “Thank yous” in the album’s liner notes.

The lack of lyrical inspiration may be why Elton had trouble with conjuring new musical directions.  Listening to the entire album it’s difficult not to continually hear the cherry-picking of previous melodies, phrasings, and passages from past albums and songs from the last 15 years or more.

A close or even a casual listen reveals snippets of sounds from past albums including “The Road To El Dorado,” “Songs From The West Coast,” “Peachtree Road,” “The Union,” and even his most recent, “The Diving Board.” 

Overall, “Wonderful Crazy Night” feels and sounds most like 2004’s “Peachtree Road,” (also produced by Elton and featuring the band) with similarities to many of its songs and its overriding pop feel and gentle country vibe.  This derivative sound from previous albums may not be deliberate, but there are too many and too obvious to overlook.

Which, then, brings us to the songs of “Wonderful Crazy Night”…

“Wonderful Crazy Night”:  From the opening notes, it sounds like we’re off to a good start.  Elton’s chugging piano chords are struck with purpose, and his voice bellowing lively.  He’s throwing in mini piano flourishes to punch the lyrics, and midway through, there’s a signature solo with his fingers deftly and defiantly rolling over the keys.  But as it continues, the song finds its comfort zone quickly and never veers from its original direction and beat.  The light-hearted lyrics seem more like filler for a song’s foundation that easily could have been taken from one of Elton’s impromptu concert piano vamps during “Levon” or “Bennie And The Jets” and is given a new life of its own.  But solos aren’t meant to drive a song, just enhance it.  Reminds me of how “Dear John” kicks off “Jump Up!” -- energetic, fun, but thin.

“In The Name Of You”:  On my first listen-through of the album, this song immediately caught my ear, and remains my favorite.  The introduction is smoky, bold, and bluesy, and anything but the “usual Elton.”  This finds the band at its tightest and hitting on all cylinders.  Matt Bissonette’s bass is especially present, as it charges and thumps, Davey Johnstone’s guitar screeches and crunches on cue, Kim Bullard’s simmering keyboards reach a boil underneath, Nigel Olsson’s drums drive it, and John Mahon’s tambourine is slyly placed.  Elton’s vocal is perfectly playful but dangerous, as Taupin sets the stage with a lusty narrative.  The only element missing is a prominent, funky Elton piano solo.  Though Johnstone’s solos are nasty as needed, Elton’s piano is woefully missing coming out of one Davey’s leads.  Sure it sounds like “Satellite” from “Ice On Fire,” only it’s better, and it’s the best complete song on the album.  Oh, if only we had that piano solo…

“Claw Hammer”: Bullard’s opening keyboards make us feel like we’re walking down a seedy, dark alley, and this song remains deceptive and mysterious throughout.  The lyrics are a throwaway, but the track is defined by its sonic schizophrenia.  It takes so many different musical twists, shows so many different personalities, it ever gains a full identity.  Its slithering opening leads to a bombastic, sing-song chorus lead by Ray Cooper’s tambourine, then slinks back into its noir feel. It then shifts to a somewhat cheery guitar solo.  When it finally reaches its end, it surprises us with another face.  Elton offers a teasingly tasty, jazzy piano meditation,  followed by a tense, full-blown horn arrangement.  This musical interlude begs to be further explored and elongated, rather than flashing in and out and leaving us wanting more.  The song’s capsulized coda could have become the beginning of something solely special if given the chance.

“Blue Wonderful”:  The album’s first semi-ballad, as Taupin attempts to create a hazy, carefree love song with words meant to convey feeling over meaning.  It doesn’t fully succeed, but there’s enough for Elton attach a breezy melody, and an example of where Elton picks up the slack, especially with his vocal.  He sings the opening line, “Every breath is a prayer of some kind,” with a tender, emotive tone. This melody at times sounds like a slowed down version of “Look Ma, No Hands” from “Songs From The West Coast,” and Taupin sneaks in a nice, nostalgic Beatle reference with, “’Yesterday’ that’s someone’s else’s song/In sixty-five, summertime long ago.”  A nice sounding song, with extra musical and vocal drama thrown in to impart more impact than it packs on the page.  You’ll hum it while it’s playing, but not substantial enough to linger.

“I’ve Got 2 Wings”:  Yet another lyrical history lesson that Taupin seems intent on passing along on recent albums.  He “taught” us about country music pioneer, Jimmie Rodgers, on “The Union,” enlightened us about writer Oscar Wilde’s struggles on “The Diving Board,” and referenced blues legend and his famous “crossroad” encounter in “The Wasteland” from 2001’s “Songs From The West Coast.”  In his latest, he unearths the true story of an obscure Louisiana preacher named Elder Utah Smith who spread the Lord’s word and a pair of large angelic wings as he played his Gibson guitar.  As with his other “history” songs, this loses its poignancy amid all the needed exposition. Ironically, this song rattles on a similar acoustic melody that drives the aforementioned, “Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream,” and again, it’s the musical accompaniment and Elton’s sincere vocal that captures your ear.  The catchy, Cajun-influenced melody and subtle guitar touches give it a lively, infectious country/gospel feel that helps save its soul.

“A Good Heart”: The album’s centerpiece has all the makings of a “classic” Elton John ballad.  Elton’s expressive vocal rises and yearns, and drops and comforts.  The music starts quietly and slowly builds through the chorus until it finally reaches a loud, dramatic flourish, accented by Johnstone’s intermittent guitar notes, Cooper’s tambourine, and Mahon’s chimes.  Then it’s lifted by an exalting horn arrangement.  It’s all there.  But yet, it isn’t.  For all the elements and musical ornamentation, the lyrics just don’t rise to the occasion.  They don’t move us or transcend.  The sentiments have been heard before.  And as mentioned earlier, it fails to include the necessary, climactic Nigel Olsson drum fill that might have anointed it.  Just when you think, “Here comes Nigel’s moment”…you wait for it, you wait for it…and it never appears.  Elton may sell the hell out of the title line, “It’s a good heart from me to you,” but it’s just not enough for good song, that so strives to be more.  I heard it live in Los Angeles at The Wiltern, and it did gain additional power.

“Looking Up”:  The album’s first single is a loose, robust toe-tapper in the fine Elton John pop tradition.  It’s sure to please.  And you know why? Because it’s a kissing cousin to 1972’s bopper, “Hercules” from “Honky Chateau.” In fact, after strangely lifting the opening riff from Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit In The Sky,” as soon as the piano and band kicks in, you can practically sing the opening verse to “Hercules” over the music.  Try it.  This quasi-sequel to “I’m Still Standing” in theme finds our former 30-something “true survivor” now a wiser 60-something reflecting on the hard life lessons learned and exclaiming his newfound contentment.  Even though this is another one-trick pony in terms of musical direction, it’s just meant to be fun, and it is.  Elton’s piano is happily tinkling at a great speeds and Johnstone’s jubilant and raging guitar solo is the song’s raunchy exclamation point.

“Guilty Pleasure”:  A thundering thumper that shocks the system. It’s so bombarding, Elton’s battles against this hand-clapping, heart-pumping pop ditty.  His voice is almost lost in the clanging clatter.  “Guilty Pleasure” is basically a louder, frenzied, glorified version of “Ball And Chain,” with Johnstone on guitar rather than Pete Townshend.  And this song too begs for a classic, no fingers barred Elton piano solo to add to the frenzy and break the pounding monotony.  But alas, Elton’s just a vocalist on this one too.  At the very end, like on “Claw Hammer,” after all the fuss, there is another quiet, brief, and intriguing piano improv complimented by Johnstone’s acoustic.  Too bad this passage couldn’t have been built upon and given a place within the song’s overall musical direction.  For all its frantic tone, Elton’s quiet piano piece is my favorite part of the song.

“Tambourine”: For the second song in a row, Elton acts as just vocalist.  The opening is overtly similar to “Peter’s Song,” a “Peachtree Road” outtake that originally was intended for the Johnny Depp film, “Finding Neverland.”  And, yet again, we have a guitar-heavy, country-ish melody. It’s a pleasing, lazy summer day kind of song in lyric and music.  It’s almost impossible not to tap your toe and sway to this simple tale, as Elton’s uses his over-annunciated country phrasing to sing “tam-bor-REEN.”  But for all its lilting appeal, it mindlessly glides along without anything really demanding close attention.  Lots of nice little touches of keyboard, but again, no Elton piano at all, which would have helped mix things up.  No lyric jumps out, and its chorus is predictable and repeated.  This one easily could have been replaced by one of bonus tracks and no one would have noticed.

“The Open Chord”:  Though one of my favorites on the album, musically, this one heavily borrows from “Too Many Tears” from “Peachtree Road.” Perhaps the best chorus and title on the album, “The Open Chord” is the one song on this album that isn’t trying so hard.  It doesn’t have to overwork because it’s one of the few that Taupin fully delivers on all fronts, and includes the enticing line “Clipping off the horns that the devil used to make me wear all day.” There is no pretense or over-selling.  It’s a meditative, hypnotic love song, and when Elton sings “You’re an open chord I want to play all day” with both a casual softness and a romantic intensity, you melt.  I find myself singing that line under my breath throughout the day.  That’s when you know a song makes a connection.  Finally, Elton’s seemingly forgotten piano makes its subtle return, and it makes all the difference.  A nice one and the perfect song to end the “official” album.


“Free And Easy”:  Taupin may have taken Elton’s request for positive songs a bit too seriously with this sweet treat.  The words evoke a happy-go-lucky territory that I don’t think Taupin has ever explored.  It doesn’t suit him.  I don’t want my Bernie Taupin this happy!  Elton matches Taupin’s sappy tone with a schmaltzy, Broadway melody -- think Anthony Newley or Burt Bacharach and Hal David, with some George Harrison guitar and Beatle harpsichord thrown in for good measure.  I can picture a young, puppy love couple prancing in the park with parasols to this one.  This might have been OK for Gilbert O’Sullivan, but not Elton.  My mouth is permanently puckered.

“Children’s Song”:  Twenty years ago, on the touching “Blessed,” Taupin imagined a conversation with a future child, stating, “I know you're still just a dream/Your eyes might be green/Or the bluest that I've ever seen/Anyway you'll be blessed.”  Several years later, the dream is fulfilled and he is now a proud father.  And rather than imagining the conversation, he now makes good on his promise and assures his two daughters are indeed protected and provided for. This is a sweet parental wish list, filled with loving advice and fatherly hopes and dreams.  It’s Taupin’s version of Bob Dylan’s similarly-themed “Forever Young.”  And of course, Elton too can approach this loving lullaby from experience, as he finds himself the father of two sons.  He sings it from his heart, just as every loving father would.

“No Monsters”:  Listen close and you’ll hear similarities to “Candlelit Bedroom” from “The Diving Board,” and shades of the love songs from “Aida” and “The Road To El Dorado.”  Another lyric that is dense with words and sentiments that fails to connect.  Elton is over-selling something no one wants. It’s so derivative and unoriginal, it never needed to even make it out of the studio.

“England And America”:  This all-out rocker, in the vein of the song “Made In England” in sound and lyric, explodes with a Who-like vengeance. The pace slows a bit as the song progresses, but the entire band is head-banging at their best, and Elton’s piano and vocal add to the rock party. I’m surprised this didn’t make the “official” album, because even though it isn’t at all distinct, it rocks harder than anything else here, and even includes some playful doo-wop harmonies.  Its high-octane acceleration would have added to the official album’s demanded “joyous quotient” and energetic blueprint, as it celebrates the two integral birthplaces of Elton and Bernie’s lives and career.  Should have made the cut.

The one major positive aspect of “Wonderful Crazy Night” is that it reveals Elton John in a rejuvenated, ambitious, life-affirming mood, and still inspired to write and record new music.  If making this album keeps his creative juices bubbling and sharp, and steers him and Taupin to keep writing into the future, then this album is a huge success and an important musical bridge to that one more classic album we all know they have in them. 
“Wonderful Crazy Night” works hard to live up to its title.  It may fall short in some areas but its tireless effort and heartfelt joy to please can’t be denied.

9 Feb 2016

The Master Class Series (III): "Elton is showing that he is the mother of invention" by Claude Bernardin

Claude Bernardin attended Great Valley High School and learned his most serious profession there, studying as a young artist under Chester County Watercolorist Lawrence H. Kuzmin. His first major Professional Painting exhibition in 1986, was in Gramercy Park, Manhattan, NY at the Salmagundi Art Club, upon invitation after receiving the President’s Award for his watercolor, “Work Bench”. Claude has had a successful painting career ever since. And has been a High School Art Instructor, on the High School level in the Philadelphian Archdiocese. He teaches Painting, drawing, graphics, photography, film, Pop Culture, The History Of Pop Music, Art History and much more.

After forty plus years of open-heart surgery through his music and Bernie Taupin’s words and stories, Elton John is finally able to put his past behind him, and move forward. The album, if nothing, is certainly a departure, and it is in the energetic album’s center piece, “Claw Hammer”, John sings openly,

“You're gonna need a claw hammer
Oh my Lord
To bust on through
And break down your walls
Loosen your lips
Slacken that jaw
Waiting for you to share with us
The myth behind the lies
Come on out
Throw us a bone

We want to know your intentions
Are you fake
For goodness sake
Or the Mother of Invention..?”

In the song's words, Taupin seems to be teasing with the fans, yet musically, John and the band deliver the album’s musical masterpiece. Here, perhaps, Elton John is showing that he is the mother of invention.  It is not so much that it is new ground, as it is a restructuring, and a new path. Here the band, and singer, have forged a new road. Yes, the ending has tinges of Steely Dan, yes the ending harkens to the most recent jazz-tinged, live concert performances of “Madman Across The Water." Yes one can hear all of that, but, don’t be fooled or dismissive, here….IT WORKS! 

This album is not unlike any John has produced, it has it's incredible highs, and it has it’s incredible lows.

A few issues off the bat:

1. There is NO PLACE in Rock-N-Roll for the theatrical vocals that appear on this album, in such tracks as “Claw Hammer”, “Blue Wonderful”, and “Free and Easy”. They can border on “icky cute”. Does that really work in rock?
2. Vocally, it is not his best album, nor is it even close. It sounds more like a walk in the park. One wonders, was this why his voice appears to be so lowly mixed down, and seems to hide behind the band?
3. The piano is clearly taking a back seat. Bands tend to be great excuses for the likes of McCartney and John, to hide behind. I’d have most certainly turned that up in the mix!
4. T. Bone Burnett, and guitarist Johnstone are not a good judge of song quality, apparently.
5. I am hopeful that T. Bone Burnett is now done for a time. We need a new honest hand in the studio.

As much as one would like to dismiss all of Elton John’s prior music catalog, it cannot, nor should it ever, be dismissed, even when writing a review. Is this album as good as Madman, or Rock Of The Westies? No! It’s different. Is it as good as Captain? Honky? Yellow Brick? No, and no amount of hype from anyone, including Rolling Stone Magazine, will make one decide that.

One comes to conclusions based on many things.
Fans like much of what John produces, that is acceptable, and it is why we call them “fans”. I am a “fan”, but I have always remained on the cusp edge, of reality. I listen to many, forms of music. I do not cast stones at others. I merely speak from my own experiences.  I like what I like, I don’t like, what I don’t like. I am a huge fan of John Mellencamp. I loved his Human Wheels and Mr. Happy Go Lucky, albums. I loved his “Rain On The Scarecrow”. What I have not loved is all his recent work with Producer T. Bone Burnett. It falls short,  ALL of it. Tuneless, drivel, bad range vocals, muddy instrumentation. Dreary lyrics.

So why mention this? Is there a connection? Yes, his name is T. Bone. I was proud of his work in the studio on the last two albums for Elton John, but even I was starting to hear muddiness, and poor decisions being made. To Produce, one should have a clear handle on the “sound” of their songwriter, the “style” of their songwriter. T Bone’s productions of the like for almost everyone he touches, seems to be like a road map, lacking any direction, and all over the place.  I am left unclear, and unsatisfied. I think it is time now for a new producer. That is all I will say further.

Clarification now on style and sound:
What does one expect of a new Elton John album these days? Nothing? Or do you harken back to olden times, to the likes of Tumbleweed or Madman, Honky Chateau, or do you want and desire a more sharp dressed, snappier 1980’s sound? Or is it possible to bridge all of this in one album? Elton’s career is a puzzler. There is the 1970’s Elton with strings and anger, there is the pop mid-1970’s Elton, there is the colder, pop savvy Elton of the 1983 era, Too Low For Zero period. There is the 1990’s Lion King "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" Elton. There is the 2001, Songs From The West Coast Elton, there is the theatre, Aida, Billy Elliot, Lestat Elton. Now that last one should not touch the “sound/or style” of the rocker Elton. EVER!  And, unfortunately, here on this disc, it has. That “sound” is not a very pleasing, nor believable by the same man who is on stage screaming at me about "he shall be Levon!” and “burning down missions!" It is a perplexing thing.

Back to our song spotlight:
In “Claw Hammer”, the album's center piece, the song begins with Elton’s Lestat, theatre voice….and I almost found it a turn off immediately. Not believable in the least. How does a rocker sing like he’s on stage in a high school drama play? It, thankfully, is saved by it's chorus and it’s wonderful, (oops new word…needed from the thesaurus quickly) its fantastic instrumental jams, thus, becoming a “fantastic” track, and eventually rising above this album as a stand out.

It is in-fact, a new direction, musically, and not in the theatre sense of the term.
Now for the songs in exact order:

Wonderful Crazy Night:
As title cuts go, the second weakest title cut ever recorded for an album by John, only comparison, here is “Leather Jackets” from 1986. It’s a better album cut, but lacking any uplifting female singers, any changes melodically. The song suffers greatly. Instrumentally, it’s got me, and my toe continues to tap, but I just can’t get around the melody. Piano great, Davey’s guitar work great, but where’s the tune? He is a Tunesmith right? Guy who wrote such glittery melodies as “Island Girl” and “Im Still Standing”?, The tune…It never alters, and as rockers go, in his arsenal of “GREAT” rockers, it can’t touch “Saturday” or “Love Lies”, so it leaves me perplexed. I think if he had had a vocalist singing a higher part over his lower register it would have worked. To me, it’s a “whole lotta mumbling goin on!”
It’s an ok B side, not a strong album cut, sorry.
Lyrically not bad, but Taupin has written stronger.
Good to hear him loosening up, but the song leaves me wanting way too much.
Grade: B/B-

In The Name Of You:
“Take a hold…here! Hold On!” Classic Elton returns! Riff is wonderfully catchy, guitar is gritty, and suddenly we are sailing back to 1972 Honky Chateau. The world is in check totally. THIS is Elton John! T. Bone gets an award! Davey Johnstone gets an award! Elton deserves the best. Lyrically it’s ok, not Taupin's best, but man, does Elton kill it!  This should have been the Lead single!
It would have been nice if he’d have played with his snarly old bitchy vocally self a bit, but yes the song soars! A breath of fresh air, lacking on The Diving Board and even The Union. Nothing more I can say here, it keeps me smiling.
It’s not “Wake Up Wendy” but I’m not doing that game. I love “IT”, this song. This song is great! And thank God the Angels woke up the old Elton, who arrives at the end vocally….NOW THAT’S ELTON! And Um, T. Bone TURN THAT UP! Ya dummy!
Ohhh yeah! OH Yeah!!!
Grade : A

Claw Hammer:
From the opening instrumentation from Ray Cooper, I’m hooked. He almost loses me with the Lestat voice, but I’m sticking with it, I’m there. Okay this is just "Oscar Wilde" Part Two…..I’m in it.
CHORUS! OH MY LORD! You saved it! It’s killer! It’s modern “Madman” but it’s somehow its equal! Dude! How do you do it?! You just reinvented yourself musically again?!Amazing, so refreshing. Thank you to all who got this done.
Mr. Johnstone you soar on this track. And it is refreshing!
Kim Bullard's Steely Dan twist is perfect, but I also love how Elton brings in the live Madman segues…it’s just a great track. A Classic, brilliant, and should be the WHOLE direction on the next album. Superb!
Grade: A+

Blue Wonderful:
Ok. Video is dreadful, that’s out of the way, Umm the theatre voice? Seriously?
Am I to take this seriously? It’s dripping icky sweet.
Yes, it reflects Peach Tree Road, but, you’ve crossed into something I just am struggling with.
NO! I can’t do it. No matter how many times you tell me …”wonderful”.
Nope, This is NOT YOUR STYLE!
It doesn’t work for you.
Out of your element totally. Davey is trying hard to salvage it, so is T. Bone, but no.
Um, not "Tiny Dancer", not "Harmony", not "Mona", not "Sacrifice", not "Blue Avenue", not "One More Arrow". Too theatre for me. Sorry.
Grade: C+

I’ve Got 2 Wings:
Took me four listens to get around this track. Lyrically it is BRILLIANT! One of Taupin’s best lyrics EVER!
At first I thought, no, no, you did not deliver the goods here, Elton. But I get it, you are working in that country folk, story tellers thing…and it is lovely. The guitar part in the back ground and the humming make it lovely.
It’s early for me, but I know it will be a treasured track for me in the future.
I love the style. YES style is here.
Grade:  B+

A Good Heart :
OH MY! He didn’t just play that?! 1974 Elton is back?!
Vocally superb, opening verse outstanding. Instrumentally behind him dark, lovely.
Classic Nigel! Chorus! AH!
Old Elton is back and in perfect form!
Classic Elton John here. I am perplexed at how Elton could see this much melody in such an average lyric. Wow! It’s that thing that ONLY Elton does. "Whoo OH." Classic Davey guitar work! Classic Elton vocals.
Piano back, YES! He could do that damn thing all day long!
Fantastic synth backing!
The horn arrangement is superb, and refreshing!
Ending is just lovely!
Ok Davey , I give you your Grade of A, good show at end.
Grade: A+

Looking Up:
Catchy as hell opening piano work! It’s classic pop Elton. It will probably not always remain this high on my list, I can see it getting tiresome. Davey does everything he can to get it to shake off its pop sensibilities. It’s a fun track, my toe is tapping constantly.
Sounds very radio single oriented.
Not a bad track.
Grade :  B+/A-

Guilty Pleasure:
Does someone owe royalties to Chrissy Hynde and The Pretenders for this track?
Come on guys it’s  “Back On The Chain Gang” by Chrissy Hynde and The Pretenders. And that isn’t slight!  Um, no, can’t do this track. If you like that 1980’s thing…ok, but all I can hear is her going “Ohhh Ohhhh Ohhh Ohhhh…” over the top! You’re better than this. WAY better! And by the way, yes…"this song will hurt someone….”  OUCH! The pain!
Grade: B-

Lyric is the second best lyric on the album, and is brilliant. Why does Elton automatically go with this as a melody? Hmmm, I allowed one already….2 Wings, I’m not going to allow two. Can’t! It’s trying hard to get off the ground…hard….bringing in jangly stuff, twelve strings, but nope. I think a better melody was desperately crying out. This song, to me, is just a dud.
I wanted it to be so much more! The song lyric deserved better, it should have at least represented the vitality and spirit of Ray Cooper, whom I am to assume the lyric represents. I read the lyric and automatically thought, wow a gospel-spiritual song!
Elton come on, what is this? You are so much better than this.
I’ll be kind with my grade.
Grade: C+

The Open Chord:
“Heard  a song in my head….and wrote it down…it came out of nowhere…”
Um, Yes! Out of nowhere…”….If nowhere is Peach Tree Road…yes!
(Verses of “Too Many Tears”, 2004’s Peach Tree Road), it is lovely.
I vote this, perhaps the strongest song on the album. It’s certainly in the top three.
And even though it harkens back to "Too Many Tears", it is a far better song than that one.
Why? Because the chorus delivers the goods. Classic ballad Elton John!
And everything “Blue Wonderful” wishes it might be when it grows up.
It’s just lovely. Breath of fresh air. Strong, strong, strong.
Grade: A+

Warning, Warning Doctor Smith……if we stop now the album gets a B+/A- or three stars.
Hmmm two more alternate tracks. What can we find with these?

Free and Easy:
I am scared…make it stop, Oh My God…!
Who is this? This is “Amoreena” Elton? “Elderberry Wine” Elton? What! WHAT AM I HEARING!?
What is that middle part?! WT…..?
Ok, without a doubt, one of the worst songs he has ever released.
It is horrible! Who said, yes, yes this is good?
DUDE, two words, no three…..HONKY FUCKING CHATEAU!
Is this for his kids? Explain?
Grade: D …and ONLY because I’m a fan!
Oh, and I’ll never listen to this again, but you can be assured of me tap dancing and singing to fans just to annoy them. Look, maybe it would have been better to walk in to the studio, grab a mic, hit the piano angrily and say, fuck you!

England and America : Ok now I’m scared, I don’t want to play the next song. Do I have to?
Maybe…just maybe, it can only get better. Oh, wait…before I push play…a thought, fans….
Battle of the songs…All of Victim of Love or "Free and Easy"?! Yes, it’s worse!
Oh one more thing before I push play, this track makes "Flinstone Boy" and "I am Your Robot" sound like "Madman Across The Water."
Oh, before I push play…oh my god I need a beer!

England and America:
Ah, balance has returned to the universe.
Order restored.
However, somehow through that last track I have teleported back to 1983, apparently. Many women dancing around me in black and white striped outfits with their hair up. I think I just saw Madonna, hold on no, that was Chrissy Hynde again.
Wait, did Chrissy Hynde have Elton John’s Love child, too?  Or was that Davey Johnstone’s love child?
Wait! Wait, I have all this wrong. This song is a love song to Davey’s Mullet.
Ok let’s try some review:
Um, "I’m still Standing" it’s not. "Saturday" it’s not….and yeah…um, I guess its ok.
Grade: B

Now for the truth, and it haunts me.
I would take the B side “Fools In Fashion” over half of this album. I’m being serious. That fact alone is why I cannot grant this album a four star or three and a half star rating or an A-. Be careful what you wish for, I suppose someone can say. Yes, I wished for an up-tempo return to form, but I was hoping T. Bone was smart enough, Johnstone was smart enough, and Elton was smart enough to turn this session into classic sound and style, and not lose the momentum and musicianship of The Union and The Diving Board. Those two albums returned John to his classic writing style.  It is not a bad effort. It does show promise and new direction. So, in closing, is this album four stars out of five, according to Rolling Stone magazine? Of course it's not. Folks, one star above that means FIVE STARS, for the likes of Sgt. Pepper or, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. This album is good, it is fun, but no, it is not four stars.

Album Promotion: A+, Some of the best ever!

Album Production: B+, Although a few songs fluctuate a bit higher, I find the mix and balance way off on this one, especially the piano and voice.

Album Cover: B-, It's NOT Caribou, but close...and I just can't get around it as a good cover.

The Band Performance: Solid A!, Everyone in the band delivers here, and their efforts help the instrumental portions breath and give the album a breezy, effortless feel through out.

The Lyrics: B, Not Taupin's best work, although, there are two on this album I'd put in his top twenty efforts of the past decade.

Melodies: B+, All over the road. Some shine, gleam, and glimmer brilliantly, some lag behind, some fall completely short, and one scared me.

Vocals:  B-, Not even CLOSE to his best efforts.

Piano: A-, Not really sure if it's the production that diminishes it's presence or its the piano pounder himself, who carefully chose this, given the band more up front time. Either way, it's not a decision I'd EVER make. Turn up the piano!

Possible Classic Album Tracks in the Vein Of "Have Mercy" or "King Must Die" or "Madman":  C+, Kind of lacking.

Ballads: B, Although having TWO in "The Open Chord" and "A Good Heart". "Blue Wonderful" drops the ball. The album is screaming out for a "Ticking!"  How can you forget to deliver your signature style and sound?

Singles/Commerciality: B-, You need TWO strong candidates, and one needs to be, without question, uptempo. You might have it here in "In the Name Of You" and "A Good Heart"…might. Is that enough? I think a bit more effort is recommended here. Maybe consider releasing "England and America" as the next single?

SUGGESTION: Restructure. Find a new studio. Find a new producer. Sit down and write twice as many songs in two sessions, and make sure you write your ballads and also some classic album cuts.

As a musician who has shaped the course of pop music history, Elton John understands he can get a way with doing a little bit less these days, and quite frankly, few have earned that right more.

But my challenge?
Nina Simone, Leon Russell, and John Lennon would all hold Elton to a much higher standard, as do I.
All written with love, and a little sense of humor.
I remain a fan, always.

Claude W. Bernardin
Co-Author of “Rocket Man: The Music Of Elton John A To Z”
A fan since September of 1970.