We’re now into the fifth year of the Elton John crisis, and frankly some of us here on the Elton watch are getting worried. Ever since 1975, when the anti-John backlash set in and the piano pumper’s finest album, Rock of the Westies, only went umpteen-platinum instead of his usual quadribillion, Elton has sounded confused, bitter, exhausted.
Efforts to reenter John into the mainstream of things failed: Blue Moves (1976) seemed like a smart idea at the time — a double-LP sulk at the height of such psychonarcissisms as est. A Single Man (1978)? Well, you know how rattled Elton was by that punk-rock business. It took a couple of years to get his head straight. And even we, the best fans and advisers a guy could have, had to admit that the Thom Bell Sessions and Victim of Love (both 1979) were miscalculations — nice disco exploitation moves made way too late.
Which is why so much is riding on 21 at 33. (Memo: Ask John what the hell he means by that title. When it was first announced, I thought he was going to go Elvis Costello one better and put twenty-one tunes on the record, but there are only nine.) On the surface, Elton seems happier. He’s toured, he’s made up with Bernie Taupin and he’s writing with Tom Robinson. Everything looks good, right?
The album’s first side is okay. “Little Jeannie” is a sweet midtempo ballad, with a lot of the old “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” wistfulness. “Sartorial Eloquence,” written with Robinson, doesn’t have much of a melody, but we can spare a song to establish the fact that our man’s got a good vocabulary. Smart PR, you know. The two numbers with Bernie, “Chasing the Crown” and “Two Rooms at the End of the World,” are the neatest, most cogent rockers that Taupin and John have done in a long time. I particularly like it when Elton becomes the conscience of Anglo-American relations in “Chasing the Crown”: “I saw the tea float in Boston.” Great stuff.
But the whole thing falls apart on the second side. 21 at 33 becomes a blatant — kind of pathetic, if the truth be known — recitation of all of John’s lurking fears. Who in the world let Elton and Bernie put this song about — boy, it’s hot in here, isn’t it? — cocaine as side two’s opener? And to follow that with “Dear God”! None of us doubt John’s faith, but I’m afraid that a born-again Elton — coming so soon after the hair transplant and all — is almost too much to comprehend. The ears boggle.
The rest of the record is just slow, dull and blatant. “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again” might be about a girl, but you can’t fool the kids out there: they know that Elton John is talking about never again being as loose and wild and comfortable with his fame as he once was in the mid-Seventies. (Even if he’s practically begging to get back into the Top Ten in the next track. “Take Me Back.”) As for the last cut, “Give Me the Love” — well, it was hard to listen to all the way through. Some things you should let a man do in peace.
Maybe if he tours with a band this time. Maybe if we get him another songwriting partner, like that New Wave guy in the Cretones who helped Linda Ronstadt. Maybe if he put some big funny glasses on….