I was a huge fan of Elton John in my teenage years and still argue that Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is the greatest double album of all time. But, not long after that, the drink and drugs took their toll on his career and he started to believe his own hype. Subsequent releases became increasingly flamboyant and over-produced, in line with his lifestyle.
That said, these later albums appealed more to my wife and her friends than Tumbleweed Connection and Honky Châteauever did, so who am I to criticize? About a year ago I was invited to review Elton’s concert in Newcastle and accepted, as a treat for my wife, thinking “At least it will be a good show.”
As we took our seats I noted that the stage was quite bare with one plain Grand Piano, a drum kit, guitar bass and handful of amps. The concert turned out to be three steps to the left of a Greatest Hits Package, with the focus being on the starker early recordings that I loved.
This all brings us to “The Diving Board” and Elton’s journey into the past courtesy of T Bone Burnett, and his long time cohort Bernie Taupin’s return to form.
The gentle piano intro to Oceans Away, which opens the album, is simply delightful. Elton’s voice oozes through a tribute to Soldiers who die ‘for the cause’ and also the ones who survive, but still cling to the memory of the ones they left behind.
By track four, The Ballad of Blind Tom, I found myself relaxing as I realized (hoped) that there weren’t going to be any orchestras swooping in or choral societies singing choruses as if their very lives depended on it. This was going to be pretty much just Elton John on vocals and piano with Raphael Saadiq on bass and Jay Bellarose on drums, and a smattering of percussionists as and when necessary. I was already in musical heaven.
Can’t Stay Alone Tonight has the hint of a country melody to it and a rhythm section that are so tight they manage to enhance Elton’s voice better than even Ray Dolby could have dreamed of doing. Speaking of his voice, Burnett’s production has made it sound as good, if not better, than in his younger days. Which is quite an achievement baring in mind his hedonistic lifestyle in the 80’s and 90’s.
There are no obvious Hit singles on “The Diving Board” but the quality of the Taupin’s songwriting shines like a beacon on the misty cliff of popular music. My Quicksand is about a poet looking back on a life of failure, and ispossibly the finest song Elton John has recorded in over 25 years. The beautifully crafted songs and melody even takes him into the softer reaches of jazz, which is something I never thought I’d hear myself say, but would love to hear more like this.
After three hours of constantly playing the album I had to put Mexican Vacation and the loosely political (Elton John political?) Take This Dirty Water on heavy rotation. His rolling barrel-house piano and punchy lyrics took me back to those heady days of trying to decipher the the songs on Tumbleweed Connection and Honky Château when I should have been revising for my exams.
The title track “The Diving Board” is another slightly Jazzy number and ends the album on a high; even if it does sound suspiciously like he’s tipping his hat in the direction of Tom Waits. But, when was that ever a bad thing?