Elton John opens his 32nd studio album by looking back in delight. "Some things you don't forget/Some things just take a hold," he sings with relish in the title song, a jaunty recollection of lasting love at first sight. The music framing that glee – "Loose clothes and a cool, cool drink/A greasy breeze from the chicken stand," conjured by John's lifelong lyric partner, Bernie Taupin – is retrospective too. John's roller-coaster piano figure and R&B solo evoke the glitter-gospel charge of exuberant early-Seventies songs like "Honky Cat" and "Crocodile Rock." John, 68, has rarely strayed far from that template. But there is a striking vigor and engagement here, especially for an artist of his vintage. He animates Taupin's images as if they are his memories, with convincing, grateful zeal.
Wonderful Crazy Night is the latest stage in an extended return to form for John – his third straight album with co-producer T Bone Burnett after 2010's The Union, a sublime collaboration with Leon Russell, and 2013's The Diving Board. Where the former LP was designed as a tribute to an idol and the latter was heavy on pensive balladry, this record is closer to the swing of moods and earthy hues that marked John's early classic LPs such as 1970's Tumbleweed Connection and 1972's Honky Chateau. "In the Name of You" moves in creeping time to a bluesy piano riff doubled by Davey Johnstone, John's longtime guitarist. Johnstone also chimes in, literally, on "Claw Hammer," brightening its swampy aura with Byrds-like 12-string guitar. In "A Good Heart," John and Burnett turn the pleading in Taupin's lyrics into a Beatlesque spin on Southern soul with a coat of horns that could have come from Abbey Road.
There is a loose, earnest theme running through most of these songs. The exception, "I've Got 2 Wings," is an effectively restrained country-church tribute to the real-life Louisiana preacher-guitarist Elder Utah Smith, written by Taupin as a first-person memoir from heaven (Smith, who died in 1965, notes the years he spent in an unmarked grave). Everything else – the jangling surrender in "Blue Wonderful"; the liberating certainty of "Looking Up," with its chopping-piano gait; the allusions to flirting and deliverance in "Tambourine" – examines the hard work of maintaining paradise on Earth: the confession, reassurance and unconditional giving. The songs routinely summon comparisons to John's greatest hits; it's easy to imagine "Tambourine" sliding onto 1973's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
But there is a matured pacing and weight to the music and John's vocal performances that make this record one of his finest in its own right. Wonderful Crazy Night is about what happens after those loose clothes and cool drinks. The final tally: It's all worth it.