For his first album in two years, Elton John’s wiped the slate clean and exchanged longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin for War of the Worlds lyricist Gary Osborne. Instead of recording with a set band and producer Gus Dudgeon, John’s coproduced himself and used studio musicians to turn out his sparest LP since Honky Chateau. But this move toward simplicity is a step into emptiness, since A Single Man is nothing more than a collection of trivial hooks performed about as perfunctorily as possible.
If John and Taupin’s final collaboration. Blue Moves, was a disastrous exercise in inflated pop rhetoric, A Single Man is an equally disastrous exercise in smug vapidity. The songs here are barely songs at all, but childish Neil Sedaka-style ditties with characterless little nursery rhymes for lyrics. Whereas Bernie Taupin may have been Elton John’s Bob Dylan manqué, Gary Osborne is surely his Howard Greenfield manqué, a famous versifier who, in “Madness,” blithely turns terrorism into pablum: “The roar of fire rings out on high/And flames light up the black night sky/A child screams out in fear/A hopeless cry for help but no one is near enough to hear.” John shrieks this garbage with all the passion of a kid who can’t find the cookie in his lunch box.
Even the best tune, “Shine On Through,” is marred by hopelessly trite words (“Oh my love/I have cursed the stars above”) and a dull, slogging arrangement. “Georgia.” “It Ain’t Gonna Be Easy” and “Shine On Through” are typical Elton John pop-gospel glosses that reduce style into hooks that merely recall other hooks. The epitome, of ready-made pop, they’re as hummable as they are hackneyed, but because the singer treats them more seriously than they deserve, they sound lifeless. John should know that such junk, like cheap clothes, must be flashy to attract. These songs cry out for just the kind of fake-churchy glitz Gus Dudgeon would have provided, but the star studiously avoids glitz in a misbegotten attempt to be “tasteful.”
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This newly acquired, spinsterish decorum also drags down the uptempo numbers. “Part-Time Love,” “Return to Paradise” (a recycled “Island Girl”), “I Don’t Care” and “Big Dipper” might have been fun had they been given the kind of hot, streamlined band arrangements that animated Rock of the Westies. Instead, John’s embalmed them in fussy pop-rock settings that simply underscore their moronity. “Shooting Star,” a moody wisp of a ballad, and “Song for Guy,” a synthesized instrumental of the sort you might hear in a dentist’s office, round out the debacle.
A Single Man demonstrates just how thin the line really is between disposable radio pop and elevator music, and suggests that for all of Elton John’s public whining about not being taken seriously, the only thing that’s ever mattered to him is that the hits keep coming. May they not.