When another performer might have bared his chest and strutted onstage in trousers tighter than White House security, Elton John capered in clown suits and hid behind his glasses. There was something engagingly sly about the self-mocking caption on Rock of the Westies: “Elton John — a boring little musician … prone to getting fat at Christmas.” So much for the more glamorous forms of self-destruction and the stars who seek them. And a thumb of his nose to those who accept only the lean and tragic as veritable pop idols. Elton John refused to take rock & roll that seriously, and we loved him for it.
In music as well as pose, he could successfully diddle the tragic heroes of popular song. “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself” deals with the real problem of suicide as a gesture (you’re not around to appreciate the effect); and the wonderfully cheerful piano, tinkling mindlessly as the singer contemplates his end, drives the humor home. “Crocodile Rock,” “I’m Going to Be a Teenage Idol” and “Bennie and the Jets” are less obviously, or perhaps less successfully, tongue in cheek; yet they too hold some popular attitudes — “rock is dead,” for instance — up to affectionate and tuneful ridicule.
If John’s piano playing tended too much toward cliché, at least his and Taupin’s satiric songs used the hackneyed phrases to good effect. Much of the charm of their best work lies in Elton’s ability to caricature Fifties frenzy, doo-wah choruses and heavy metal without reproducing them note for note and instrument for instrument. The results are infectious without being overpowering. A wry perspective is maintained.
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Admittedly, this perspective can be a drag. Elton John has never been an impassioned interpreter of the songs he sings. Indeed, he is as cautious in committing himself as the most eligible bachelor, so that it is sometimes difficult to know if a tune is intended seriously or as a put on. This problem is increasingly evident on his later albums and means that many songs are less moving than they might be if delivered with conviction. On the other hand, John’s detachment has saved some of his and Taupin’s heavier numbers from sinking under their own weight. In fact, this may be one secret of their success: keep the audience guessing and don’t threaten them with feelings that cut too close to the bone. It is unquestionably a safe approach.
But with Blue Moves, the anxiously awaited double album described by John himself as a turning point, caution has been thrown to the winds. It seems that while passing himself off as a paunchy Everyman poking fun at plastic heroes, Elton John must have been planning how to beat them at their own game all along; for Blue Moves is one of the most desperately pretentious albums around. It’s a two-record catalog of musical excess, from the orchestra to the backup choir; from the coy instrumental curtain raiser to the final, painfully prolonged fade-out. It comes with everything but the skintight pants.
I suppose we should have seen it coming. By Rock of the Westies John certainly no longer seemed to consider himself an individual performer. Rather, an assorted collection of sidemen had solidified into a band, and his piano playing had already become less central to the music. From there it was only a short step to turning more of the composing and arranging over to the band, as he has done on Blue Moves. John always may have wanted to be one of the tough guys; certainly, many of the songs on Rock of the Westies are in a darker, more aggressive mood than before. But gone with Elton’s piano is much of the deft commentary which once wedded words and music.
Still, Rock of the Westies could be excused as a hasty effort. Blue Moves, on the other hand, means to be taken seriously. It has been elaborately arranged and recorded, yet none of the arrangements have the subtlety that John’s piano used to provide. It’s no surprise that the best cuts (“Idol,” “Shoulder Holster”) are the ones with the sparest accompaniment. For the rest, many of the arrangements are little more than crude attempts at sound effects. On a good tune like “Cage the Songbird,” the chirping of synthesizer and bell tree is merely distracting. On a weak cut like “Tonight,” where a lovers’ quarrel is accompanied by moody violins and stormy timpani, the effect is ludicrous.
While Elton John used to poke fun at rock’s poses and pretensions, his playing showed that he took the music seriously enough to quote it well. But times have changed. Blue Moves is no different than most double albums in that it contains nowhere near enough good songs to justify the extended length, but songs are no longer the focus. Instead, Blue Moves is preoccupied with sound, with instrumental interludes and tidy segues, to the exclusion of sense. It attempts to satisfy the ears while leaving the emotions completely unaroused. In fact, Blue Moves is the musical equivalent of a dumb but gorgeous one-night stand. Unfortunately, it is also intended as a sort of farewell album and is clearly meant to have a more lasting effect. Instead it sounds like it’s time for John to take a rest. “Idol” sums it up neatly:
He was an idol then, now he’s an idol here
But his face has changed, he’s not the same no-more
And I have to say that I liked the way his music sounded before.