It's been 20 years now since Elton John hit his artistic peak with Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. Since then his output has been disappointingly unpredictable. For every fine piece of pop craftsmanship like "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," there has been formulaic pap like "Sad Songs (Say So Much)." For every genuinely moving elegy like "The Last Song," there has been such mawkish heart tuggers as "Can You Feel the Love Tonight."
During his critical heyday, John was both album artist and hit-making machine, creating records noteworthy for their overall thematic ambition and consistency. Yet since Blue Moves, in 1976, the spottiness of his work has necessitated that his work be judged on a song-by-song basis. What a surprise, then, that Made in England, John's 32nd album, holds together as an accomplished, cohesive suite of songs whose underlying theme — the acceptance that comes with aging — is often beautifully articulated. "Please let me grow old with you," John croons on the charming "Please," a track as sexy and romantic as any down-and-dirty R&B slow jam.
More guitar based than any of John's albums since Rock of the Westies (1975), the new disc has an immediacy that has long been lacking in his music. Indeed, much of Made in England was recorded live in the studio. The energetic "Latitude" has a country lilt that's both straightforward and beguiling; the song's hooks and John's endearing vocal recall some of the singer's finest work. Other tracks, like "Pain" and the title song, rock harder, borrowing some of the edginess of alternative guitar pop, although their exuberance is vintage John, reminiscent of such classics as "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" and "The Bitch Is Back."
In its lyrics the new disc is harder to assess. John doesn't write his own lyrics, so the blame for some of the album's more banal sentiments lies largely with his longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin. For the most part, Taupin has done right by the singer, particularly on the atypically autobiographical title track, with its reference to the piano man's homosexuality — "If you're made in England/You're built to last/You can still say homo/And everybody laughs/But the joke's on you."
Taupin is less effective when he tries to universalize the emotional struggle behind John's well-publicized bout with substance abuse on songs like the egregious, gospel-flavored "Man," in which he resorts to nebulous recovery-movement clichés. Worse yet is the way John and Taupin deal with the clash in Northern Ireland on "Belfast": "But I never saw a braver place, Belfast," John sings, romanticizing years of suffering with a hollow, faux-lugubrious vocal.
Such missteps notwithstanding, Made in England is a startlingly fine album, one that shows a newly committed artist tapping into the essence of his creative flow.