Given that his voice combines the nasal sonority of James Taylor with the rasp of Van Morrison with the slurry intonation of M. Jagger with the exaggerated twang of Leon Russell; that, in this age during which most everyone seems content to sing unison with moronic little guitar riffs, he writes attractive melodies; that the lyrics devised by his songwriting partner appear on first glance to be Genuine Poetry; that, while the standard procedure for the modern singing songwriter is to either perform hunched over the piano in a terrified little ball or shy away from live performances altogether, he gets off on wearing outrageous costumes, thrashing tambourines, and occasionally impersonating Jerry Lee Lewis; given all that, it’s not even a trifle surprising that the mere mention of his name causes those who’ve seen him live or heard his album to drool superlatives like “SUPERstar!” and break out in hives.
As hesitant as one might be to own up to it in the light of all the superlative-drooling and hive-breaking-out-in that’s been going on since his first American visit, Elton John really is a gas.
The sad part is that those assigned to give him a hand in the recording studio during these sessions were apparently something less than positive about his being a gas and consequently gave him all manner of over-production as well as a hand, the result being that his first American album is something less than the gas it might have been.
The major problem with Elton John is that one has to wade through so damn much fluff to get to Elton John. Here, by the sound of it, arranger Paul Buckmaster’s rather pompous orchestra was spliced in as an afterthought to flesh out music that had sufficient muscle to begin with, their choirs and Moogs and strings threaten to obscure Elton’s voice and piano, everywhere that they appear at least momentarily diverting the listener’s attention therefrom. Those acquainted with producer Gus Dudgeon’s brilliant work with the Bonzos have ample reason to be mightily disillusioned with the good fellow for the excesses he allowed to run rampant here.
But don’t be scared away, for so immense a talent is Elton’s that he’ll delight you senseless despite it all. He’s equally effective belting gospely rock and roll raves like “Take Me To The Pilot” and the already much-covered “Border Song” (neither of which one can resist leaping up heatedly to boogie to) in a tuneful snarl and intoning pretty McCartneyesque ballads like “Your Song,” “I Need You To Turn To,” or “First Episode at Hienton” in a warm, intimate and wonderfully sympathetic tenor. In “No Shoestrings on Louise,” a respectful send-up of the Stones’ “Dear Doctor,” he manages to sound like the perfect synthesis of all the luminaries mentioned above without once removing his tongue from against his cheek. And the orchestra was needed on neither “Sixty Years On” nor “The King Must Die,” for on both his voice creates sufficient drama on its own.
A few warranted words on the album’s words, by Bernie Taupin. At this hopefully early stage. in his evolution, Bernie all too often opts for the consciously poetic/arty where the straightforward would do better, tends to wander metaphorically, forces himself into some perfectly dreadful rhymes, occasionally employs ambiguity for its own sake, and generally seems intent on reproducing most of Keith Reid’s early faults, the result being that one often has to consciously ignore the lyrics if he’s to enjoy the song. He’s definitely his most bearable when, as in “The Greatest Discovery” or “Hienton,” he’s too busy narrating specific emotions and experiences for us to think about concealing his sentimentality with poetistic tricks. Rock and roll has too few unabashed sentimentalists writing songs as it is: let it all hang out, Bernie.
Now then, if you’re certain you simply won’t be able to withstand the intrusive orchestrations of Elton John, get yourself his first album, Empty Sky, which contains generally even better songs than the American album and has Elton singing slightly less manneredly and without fear of being swallowed whole by an orchestra. And watch for the second American album, which Elton promises will be a combination of the best of Empty Sky and Elton John.
If we can somehow discover another Elton John and coerce the Move to release their new album in the next few weeks, 1970 may yet escape going down as a not terribly good year for rock and roll.