In June Elton John signed what was reported to be the most lucrative contract ever negotiated by a recording artist. MCA, the record company involved, commemorated the event with full page ads in both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. The latter paper followed up with a story headlining Elton as “The $8 Million Man,” eight million being the sum thought to be guaranteed John as royalties on his next half-dozen albums.
The magnitude of the deal was obviously inspired by the great success of Elton’s previous albums. Virtually all have sold one million units, an achievement which would enable him, if he wished, to coast laxly through the next few years; but there is nothing to indicate that anyone expects him to be resting on his laurels. On the contrary, everything about the contract’s announcement suggests that both parties are looking forward to even greater things from Elton John: the flowering of his art, as it were.
In effect he and his writing partner, Bernie Taupin, have been given their heads to follow whatever direction they choose. It is a luxurious imprimatur on top of the one already accorded by giant sales, and it must seem to them an ultimate declaration that what they have been doing has been “right,” that by following their instincts they can do no wrong.
What John and Taupin have excelled at is the assembling of commercial sounds. Their recorded creations have been carefully constructed pop artifacts, the end product of controlled experiments in which element is added to element, a process more akin to making objects than to making music. Whatever’s trendy is sure to catch their attention and find its way into their mix. They take pride in being on top of things, in writing the first astronaut single, in fashioning the definitive nostalgia hook, in marketing the timely eulogy to Marilyn. Elton John makes records in the same manner as he puts together his wardrobe and choreographs his concerts. Often what he mistakes for style is simply next month’s bad taste, but discrimination does not really concern him. It needn’t matter if something’s grotesque; what’s important is that it’s new. Elton is an impresario of stance, a maestro who has presented a series of attractive aural surfaces. The trouble with surface is that it wears thin.
Caribou is not wearying in the same way as would be an album whose makers were bored with their work. Caribou is dispiriting because it “logically” extends Elton’s weak strengths and strong weaknesses, the superficial powers that have taken him so far. The thin roots that kept him in touch with an organically nourishing topsoil have been sundered and at last he’s on his own, fulfilling his weird hybrid nature in a self-designed hothouse where nothing but lurid display is valued.
Nearly every song on Caribou suffers from a blithe lack of focus, an almost arrogant disregard of the need to establish context or purpose. It’s as if Elton and his band are so convinced of their own inherent inspiration they no longer feel the need to establish coherent moods. Shifting from sentimental to heavy to mocking, they not only fail to touch all bases but undercut what credence they might possibly have achieved.
From the first track the album displays a strange overkill which simultaneously introduces many production elements and then buries them under one another. The opener, “The Bitch Is Back,” is the slickest and strongest cut on Caribou, but it lacks real punch. The combined forces of Clydie & Sherlie & Jessie & Dusty and the Tower Of Power horn section fail to get this putdown-celebration of a certain sort of social pariah-piranha off the ground. And from there, it’s all downhill.
“Pinky” is a love song set to a jerky syncopated melody, an ungainly tune that easily wins its battle against the words.
“Grimsby,” with tripping tempo and ricky-tik riffs, may or may not be a comic song, but the overall feel is flaccid.
“Dixie Lily,” a tribute to a riverboat sung by a citizen of the swamps, achieves a level of cultural assimilation comparable to that reached by “Bobbies on bicycles two by two.”
“Solar Prestige a Gammon,” an Italianate nonsense song, demonstrates the stiffness which plagues Elton even in his humor.
“You’re So Static,” a sort of revamped “Honky Tonk Women,” wanders between facetiousness and heavy metal.
“I’ve Seen the Saucers,” someone’s wistful wish to be taken away from mundanity deus ex machina, is made irrelevant by last-minute, out-of-context science fiction sounds meant to be taken seriously.
The overlong “Stinker” convincingly proves Elton John is not a soul singer.
The centerpiece fiasco, however, is the melodramatic seven-and-a-half-minute finale, “Ticking,” which fails not through musical ambiguity but from an appalling combination of simplemindedness, over-reaching and opportunism in the material itself. All alone at the piano (with a synthesizer adding tension), Elton “simply” unfolds this maudlin tale of a young man from a repressive background who goes berserk in a New York bar and shoots 14 people. Victim of society and a Catholic upbringing, he is a reluctant psychopath (“Promising to hurt no one, providing they were still”) and when at last the fellow snaps and starts shooting, it is “with tear-filled eyes.” The killings are dispensed with in half a phrase, their only apparent significance to set into motion the vindictive forces which for some reason are determined to exterminate this peculiar hero. In the presence of “the media machine” the understood murderer is cut down while surrendering, and he poetically expires in one-stanza slow-motion “on the vengeance of the law.” Only in America. Queens, no less.
This selection ends, as do nearly half of the album’s ten tracks, in an extended and pretentious synthesized drone. Each use of this device underscores not the intended emotion but, instead, the aridity of what has been, for one reason or another, a startlingly empty experience.