Elton John was in the middle of his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour in March 2020, when the pandemic sent the world into quarantine. Soon, like the rest of us, he was back home. “I filled my days like everyone else seemed to be filling their days,” he writes in the notes for his new album, The Lockdown Sessions. “I gawped at Tiger King and Chernobyl. I listened to a lot of music. We instituted a daily family snakes and ladders tournament, which my kids invariably won. Someone showed me how to work Facetime and Zoom.”
Elton says he didn’t intend to make a new record while he waited for the world to open back up, but as the restless months ground on, he couldn’t resist a collaboration or two. The result is this all-star gala of an album, which, appropriately for Elton, is downright gaudy in the number of enormous names it brings together. Dua Lipa opens things up, interpolating a little “Rocket Man” into the lite disco tune “Cold Heart.” Elton’s L.A. neighbor Charlie Puth soars over the Eighties-big ballad “After All.” Brandi Carlile joins him for some rhinestone-studded country wisdom on “Simple Things.” He gamely tries to keep pace with Eddie Vedder on the hard-driving “E-Ticket,” and elsewhere hooks up with iconic Seventies peers Stevie Wonder (the gospel-steeped “Finish Fine”) and Stevie Nicks (the California soft-rocker “Stolen Car”).
As with most socially-distanced hangouts and Zoom calls, much of the album has a tentative, at times sort of awkward, feel. In that sense, The Lockdown Sessions is a true reflection of our times. Young Thug flows quite beautifully over Elton’s fluttering piano part on “Always Love You,” but a phoned-in vocal from prominent vaccine skeptic Nicki Minaj is at once unneeded and poorly timed. Pop-metal rulebreaker Rina Sawayama is certainly an artist who works in Elton’s wild-child glam spirit; it’d be fun to hear them crocodile-rock it up, but she feels a little hemmed-in during the gloppy “Chosen Family.”
Some of the strongest songs come from previously released projects: “One of Me,” off Lil Nas X’s Montero, and the version of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters,” with Miley Cyrus, Yo-Yo Ma, Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, that appeared on the recent Black Album tribute The Blacklist. Among those previously released songs is what might be the LP’s most arresting moment, “The Pink Phantom,” a starkly pretty intimation of mortality from the Gorillaz’ 2020 Song Machine series during which Elton and R&B artist 6lack share a haunting intimacy.
Even if this project probably won’t give us any fresh entrants into the large canon of classic Elton songs, The Lockdown Sessions is still a glowing testament to his enduring pop gravitas. Many of these songs happened because the artists involved reached out to him, underscoring the fatherly example he’s offered to generations of pop superstars and rock & roll oddballs. He says that recording such a diverse collection under these strange circumstances reminded him of his early days as a session musician in the 1960s, running between gigs knowing you’d have to fit your talents into widely varying contexts without overthinking it. Somewhat miraculously, Covid made him feel young again. That kind of magical thinking is pure Elton, and his resilience and optimism should be a lesson to us all.