It is very, very difficult to generalize about Sir Elton John. As much as I admire the man and his music, I am the first to admit that selectiveness is mandatory when you approach his catalog – and that applies even to his heyday way back in the 70’s.
His heyday way back in the 70’s. Elton achieved a degree of success and resonance no artist could even dare to imagine. And one thing that must be mentioned and remembered is that he fought for every inch of it. He captivated the public with standout records and mesmerizing performances, and he worked relentlessly hard from day one.
Enumerating all his achievements would be incredibly time-consuming, but some quick facts do not go amiss. He was the best-selling solo artist of the 70’s, and the first artist ever to enter the American album charts at number one with the colossal “Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy” (released in 1975). He won an academy award in the mid-90’s for his collaboration with lyricist Tim Rice on “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” from Disney’s “The Lion King”. In that decade he also released the best-selling song of all time, “Candle In The Wind”. The song had been originally included on the double album “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, released in 1973. The version included there was about Marilyn Monroe. When Princess Diana died in 1997, Elton asked Bernie to rewrite the lyrics and he re-recorded it. The new version was played live for the first and only time at Diana’s funeral, and if you have never seen that moving performance please do so now:
Many people are not aware that Elton is not a lyricist himself, and that he always has a collaborator that takes care of the words while he takes care of the music. The most famous of these is undoubtedly Mr. Bernie Taupin, and his lyrics come under scrutiny every second of the day, both formally and in terms of content. Personally, I consider him an exemplary lyricist as he understood all along who he was writing for and what was expected of him. Although some of his early compositions are either too naive or too ambitious, he was to evolve into a very fine crafter of lyrics. Check out “The One” (Elton’s 1992 album) in order to see what I mean. And stop bashing Bernie for “Your Song”, he was the first one to admit it is a piece of juvenile piffle, penned because he wanted to get laid with a girl he was rabidly after.
Coming back to Elton, enumerating his miscues is also time-consuming. Even his classic records have a considerable amount of filler, and starting with 1973’s “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player” the filler began getting out of hand. That album, incidentally, stands as the point in which the focus started to stray far from his piano playing, and the overall listening experience was lessened as a result. Elton would lose it completely in the 80’s (his album are consistently subpar, albeit good singles continued pouring in, and one of the best albums of his career would surface in 1981). Maybe Bernie played a bigger role in his music that Elton would have wanted to admit – other collaborators were not able to replicate the function the Brown Dirt Cowboy had served. Also, Elton’s life was in shambles, mainly owing to substance abuse and eating disorders he had to cope with.
Eventually, Elton would get himself together and sort of reignite his career in the 90’s. The first album he released that decade was “The One”, and he later remarked it was the first album he recorded sober. Bernie was his regular lyricist again, and they both had matured. The lyrics became more meditative and poignant, and Elton’s playing was better than ever. His voice was also different – he had to undergo surgery in the late 80’s, and while he came out of it fine he lost some range and gained some raggedness in the process. His most recent albums have a very mature sound, and while they have yielded no hits they are among his most satisfying records in decades. I don’t know how much more music is forthcoming from the Captain & The Kid, but what I can tell you is that if you know where to dig you are going to find a treasure that will never deplete itself, but rather increase its value through the years. You will also find fool’s gold, but that is to be expected in a career that has already spanned over four decades. Let me know which one is which for you in the comments.