Tabloid fixture, Las Vegas institution, movie producer, duet partner with everyone from Lady Gaga to Queens of the Stone Age – even in his sixties, Elton John still thrives in the spotlight. Yet musically, his priorities have shifted. When he released 2010's The Union – a triumphant collaboration with Leon Russell, which reclaimed the legacy of one of Sir Elton's greatest inspirations – he said that the project had left a permanent mark on his creative direction. No longer would he chase the fleeting vanities of pop taste, but he would commit to making music that was more honest and personal.
The first result of this new approach is The Diving Board, which brings Elton back together with Union producer T Bone Burnett and demonstrates that he wasn't blowing smoke. The album is more focused than anything he's done in years, and it returns Elton to the kind of spare, country-flavored narrative songs with which he made his name on early-1970s masterworks like Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across the Water – before he plugged in his electric boots, transformed into Captain Fantastic and became the biggest rock star in the world.
For much of the album, Elton's piano is backed only by neosoul wonder Raphael Saadiq, who plays bass, and drummer Jay Bellerose, at times augmented by guitar fills from Doyle Bramhall II or by atmospheric horn or string arrangements. The simple feel leaves space for the recurrent themes of travel, memory, nostalgia – of lessons learned – to resonate, reaching wistful, emotional peaks with "Voyeur" and the first single, "Home Again." As usual, Bernie Taupin's lyrics are filled with images of vintage Americana and the Old West. Sometimes, as on the detailed history lesson of "Oscar Wilde Gets Out," the words are too dense to leave much room for melody, and occasionally a metaphor runs amok ("When the arrow's in the bull's-eye every time/It's hard assuming that the archer's blind"). But the opening "Oceans Away," a moving, deceptively complex tribute to the lyricist's father and fellow World War II vets, illustrates the power of Taupin's language.
Perhaps the LP's most impressive achievement is the way it returns Elton's piano to the forefront, where it ought to be. There has never been a rock pianist like him, equally fluent in Little Richard jackhammer rhythms, careful, Nashville-derived fills and English music-hall razzmatazz. It's apparent in three brief instrumental breaks, but even more so when he lets loose with the honkytonk gospel of "A Town Called Jubilee" and "Take This Dirty Water," where Russell's influence is felt the deepest.
The album ends with the title track, a slow and stunning meditation on that final moment of youth, when we are all still pure potential. "I was 16/And full of the world and its noise," Elton recalls in the slightly slurred and weary voice of the saloon singer, before embracing the call of "the planets alight/Those dizzy heights." With The Diving Board, Elton has regained his sense of musical possibility and taken a brave, graceful jump.