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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.

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