Unfortunately, little of the glorious schmaltz that made Elton John and his songwriting collaborator Bernie Taupin the Rodgers and Hammerstein of the rock era is evident on Duets, a new collection of songs pairing John with an eclectic array of singers. This material is solid enough, borrowing from John’s catalog as well as that of other pop bards, ranging from Cole Porter to Ashford and Simpson, and the lineup of guest vocalists is generally stellar. But the tracks are too often hindered by tepid middle-of-the-road arrangements. The lush voice of K.D. Lang is wasted on a limp, hurried rendering of “Teardrops,” while a soulful delivery by John and Little Richard can’t raise “The Power” above an overly tame hip-hop foundation. Conversely, a percolating synth backdrop fails to rescue “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” — a song originally performed as a duet by John and Kiki Dee (who also appears on this album) — from a bloodless performance by RuPaul, whose 15 minutes will hopefully be up soon.
For certain numbers, of course, a light touch is just the ticket, and at those moments Duets achieves its peaks. John and Paul Young tiptoe buoyantly through “I’m Your Puppet,” and Bonnie Raitt lends her usual nonchalant radiance to a tender reading of “Love Letters.” John’s 1991 duet with George Michael on “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” is also included, though its presence only draws attention to the fact that other songs on the album could have benefited from a little more of the overstated panache that has always been John’s strong suit.