First things first. This is one of Elton John's best albums. He hasn't tried to top past successes, only to continue the good work he's been doing. And he's succeeded, even taking a few chances in the process. The record is devoid of the gimmicky rock numbers from the Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player phase. It isn't weighted down with the overarranging and overproduction that marred so much of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It sounds freer and more relaxed than Caribou. His voice sounds rough, hoarse, almost weary. But that only helps make him sound more personal and intimate than in the past.
It is by now beyond question that Elton John is a competent and classy entertainer. Few people who have achieved his popularity have succeeded in maintaining his standards for performance and professionalism. And in his relationship to his audience, Elton not only gives of himself in terms of output and energy but he does it graciously and generously. Unlike his American counterparts (many of them neither as talented nor as popular), he hasn't soured on success.
But the question remains — is Elton John something more than a great entertainer? I'm not sure. For one thing, despite his ability to sound profound, he seldom projects a tangible personality. After so many albums and tours, few people have any sense of him at all. And for all his productivity and enthusiasm, he remains a largely passive figure, the creator of music that one can get comfortable with but which is never challenging or threatening.
Elton John can be a master of the sleight of hand. The arrangements make it seem like there are substantial melodies underneath the tracks — but almost nothing demands repeated listenings. Similarly, he always sounds like he's singing up a storm, but his voice glosses over the material, reducing most things to an uninteresting sameness.
More importantly, his music is often devoid of noteworthy emotional content. That problem can't be talked about without bringing up the controversial lyrics of his collaborator, Bernie Taupin.
Elton John himself never seems pretentious but Bernie Taupin's lyrics often do — sometimes pretentious in a clever sort of way, but pretentious nonetheless. There is a conflict between Elton's and Bernie's personal styles, no doubt about it. Perhaps that conflict is at the root of what is good as well as what is bad about Elton's work, but it must be dealt with just the same. When Elton simply wants to fool around and put out something that's pure tapioca, Bernie still winds up handing him something labored, for example, "Crocodile Rock."
Naturally Taupin's weaknesses come to the fore on this concept album about the song-writing team's scuffling days. But it's a strong commentary on his glibness that on a record that is supposed to evoke two people's personal experiences, there is no sense of particularity. Taupin's lyrics generate more of the album's quality of sameness than John's singing. His clever names and bloated images can't disguise the lack of original thought.
But besides being clumsy and overbearing, Taupin has a puritanical streak which appears to be wholly at odds with John's presence. It struck me most when I listened to "Tower of Babel." I thought it was just another melodramatic slow sizzler until I actually looked at the lyrics. I would have never gotten from Elton's intonation and approach that he was singing anything as apocalyptic, self-important and hateful as:
It's party time for the guys in the tower of Babel.
Sodom meet Gomorrah,
Cain meet Abel.
Have a ball ya'all
See the letches crawl
With the call girls under the table.
Watch 'em dig their graves,
'Cause Jesus don't save the guys
In the tower of Babel.
In reality, Taupin has been dabbling in this sort of allegorical, pseudoreligious crap for a while — but it is definitely out of control here.
But it is surely wrong to dismiss the lyricist altogether. For one thing, he has at least one piece of excellent ersatz gospel to his credit, "Border Song." And secondly, he has consistently been able to transcend himself on one or two cuts per album — in this case, on "Someone Saved My Life Tonight."
On that one, both Elton and Bernie disprove the criticisms made here. There's no illusion of saying something, they are saying something; there's no illusion of a superb performance but a superb performance itself; no imitation of quality but rock of very high caliber.
As long as Elton John can bring forth one performance per album on the order of "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," the chance remains that he will become something more than the great entertainer he already is and go on to make a lasting contribution to rock.