It’s too much to expect a substantial album from Elton John at this point, but with the return of his longtime producer, Gus Dudgeon, for Ice on Fire, there was the hope that he might at least whip up a few frothy singles. Though the riffs abound, they’re warmed over from other hits — most of them not his own — without any foundation of personal style.
An identity crisis is nothing new for Elton, but even the obvious influences on this album are second generation; his Motown and Gamble and Huff tributes sound more like Wham! and Culture Club approximations. No matter how derivative his past hits, at least they had some charisma and some flash, anchored in his sturdy piano playing. Lately, Elton’s piano has become an afterthought, and the few times his piano takes the lead on Ice on Fire, it’s distant and heavy-handed, as if he were striking the keys with mallets.
Elton’s full-time reunion with lyricist Bernie Taupin doesn’t help. Taupin recently scored a Number One single without Elton — Starship’s hunk of AOR lead, “We Built This City” — and he’s given Elton his own mindless anthem: “This Town,” an unsympathetic look at a dead-end blue-collar community, which Elton “exposes” in a sneering vocal that’s matched by some hard-nosed, clinical horns. The album’s big ballad, “Too Young,” isn’t nearly as offensive, just silly and ironic. Elton laments the objections of his lover’s parents (he’s too old, they say), and his weary vocal suggests that maybe they’re right.
As usual, Elton and Taupin get more when they strive for less. “Nikita” is a simple tale of political and emotional oppression that’s as sure-voiced and emotional as “Daniel,” while “Wrap Her Up” unabashedly celebrates media molls in a jaunty vocal romp between Elton and George Michael. Their voices are almost interchangeable, revealing just how much influence Elton has had on the younger British popthrobs, though “Wrap Her Up” is considerably more appealing than the empty calories Wham! usually serves up.
When Elton does hit his stride, he still only echoes his seminal work. Once one of rock’s more animated performers, Elton John is now an old cartoon: the gags are sometimes still funny, but the punch line never changes.