This is the quintessential Elton John album. It has some pop masterpieces, some filler, some embarrassments, some songs whose lyrics wouldn’t work anywhere else but here, a couple of songs that have inexcusable words, and (on the whole) songs that scream out “this guy sure plays and sings with gusto”.
The cuts that work obviously include the larger-than-life hits “Bennie & The Jets”, “Candle In The Wind” and the title track. Personally, I find it impossible to assimilate that these songs stand as part of a bigger work and not as isolated pieces that are played on the radio every five seconds, and that can sit next to anything. These songs are likewise the ones where Bernie does its job correctly, and even more than that on the perennial “Candle In The Wind”. The album also has the live favorite “Saturday’s Night Alright For Fighting” – it was actually the first single, and it hit higher in the UK than in the US, which was something unusual for Elton at this point. The song also was covered by The Who for the John/Taupin tribute “Two Rooms”, and their version (with Who archivist Jon Astley on drums) can be found on the “30 Years Of Maximum R & B” boxed set as well. It is certainly a “British” song – it deals with Bernie’s early years on the countryside (Lincolnshire), and the images of boys and girls preparing for a long night out surely factored heavily in its success.
Then, other tracks that do deliver are the opening “Funeral For A Friend/Loves Lies Bleeding”. The drum sound is amazing, and the ensemble singing of Dee, Nigel and Davey is as good as on the title track. The same can be said about the closing number, but that was somehow to be expected from a number called “Harmony”. It is still very beautiful, and a great way to send off the two-record set.
A little less successful but still listenable are the “new” version of “Grey Seal” (Elton had tried recording it before, and he was to get it right this time), and a couple of ballads such as “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” and “All The Girls Love Alice” – “Alice” has lyrics that walk the line, but it is just tolerable. “The Ballad of Danny Bailey” is also a medium paced song that much like “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” has an orchestrated fade which greatly enhances the overall appeal of the tune.
The “universally problematic” songs here are “Dirty Little Girl” (a serious misstep on Bernie’s behalf) and the far too silly “Jamaica Jerk Off” (about as compelling as “No Shoe String On Louise” from the eponymous disc), whereas “Social Disease” is no much better. The sax solo is a nice distraction, though.
I have no strong feelings as far as “Sweet Painted Lady” and the fiction homage “Roy Rogers” are concerned, although the former comes under fire for its actual lyrics – a demeaning take on prostitution.
I don’t consider this to be Elton’s best album from this purple period in his career. That distinction must go to “Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy”. But (like I said at the beginning) I do consider this to be the most representative exponent of everything that was right and wrong with him back then. I must admit that it is probably one of the most effective ways of sampling his work. Heck, it even guarantees the running time in the end. And some songs are quite fillerish and/or embarrassing. But when Elton gets it right, it definitely sticks in your mind. The good seems to outbalance the bad quite directly, and I guess the same can be said about his career – some serious mistakes later on should not obliterate all the good music he was able to put out during the 70s. The yellow brick road was always there, and he managed to step on it more than often, sometimes for a whole disc (“The Fox”, “Too Low For Zero”). When he managed to find it again forever in the 90s the road was a little overgrown, and it was also to remain a little less glittering. But I will discuss that when I get to “Sleeping With The Past”, “The One” et al.