Elton John

Among their own kind, pop musicians have never enjoyed the patronage of a more enthusiastic fan — or suffered the withering barbs of a more honest critic — than Elton John. The 54-year-old icon’s career-long expressions of admiration and disdain trace a history of the past three decades’ chart heroes and goats. So it was refreshing, if not unexpected, to hear John, who has played both roles since his ’70s dominance faded, slag his own post-1976 catalog in the weeks leading up to the release of Songs From the West Coast.

Refreshing rather than depressing because Songs lives up to John’s hype as his sturdiest album since the Ford administration. A die-hard disc junkie who buys and absorbs music as fervently now as he and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin did when they conquered America in 1970, John says it was critics’ darling Ryan Adams’ prolific, literate output that inspired him to “try harder.” It’s one thing to lavish praise on Adams’ charmingly sloppy songs, reminiscing how it also used to be John’s way to write and record an album during the span of a few weeks. It’s another to listen to the results, twelve tracks that recall — and sometimes capture — the spirit of the months between November 1971 and May 1972, during which John released the brooding Madman Across the Water and its slicker follow-up, Honky Chateau.

John has complained over the years that he hates his vocals on Madman. He’s unlikely to lodge similar objections against Songs; John’s voice, freed from the reverb favored by frequent producer Chris Thomas (replaced here by Pat Leonard), is firmly in front of the mix — shockingly naked on the single “I Want Love,” bitterly resigned alongside Rufus Wainwright’s backing vocal on “American Triangle.”

The latter, a eulogy for Wyoming hate-crime victim Matthew Shepard, represents Taupin’s most sober lyric here, a return to the hit-or-miss topicality of 1974’s “Ticking” that awkwardly fuses rage and sap but achieves compelling results thanks to John’s searching performance and soaring chorus. Elsewhere, the songwriting pair rediscovers its sense of humor with the Jerry Lee Lewis-as-“Honky Cat” stomp of “Birds” and the ersatz-Little Richard gospel “Wasteland.” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a sort-of sequel to the title song of 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, has the grandeur of anything from Madman, but, like the other songs here, never vaults the five-minute fence. “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore,” the glowing finale, is more Bacharachian — and far more memorable — than anything on 1998’s Burt Bacharach-and-Elvis Costello team-up Painted from Memory. It’s also one of John’s best-ever songs.

But the reason Songs works outside the John canon as the kind of self-contained, career-redefining master stroke Bonnie Raitt pulled off with Nick of Time or Bob Dylan with Time out of Mind is this: belief. John says he couldn’t make a better album now than this. His writing, playing and singing sound not only as though he means it but also as if he’s aware of past albums’ failings and wants to make amends. Songs is the work of an artist finally learning the difference between not doubting himself and believing fully in his own instincts.

Categories: Music