Elton John’s music means a lot to me, and, as a result, I’m not overjoyed with this album. A record with a theme, it’s an account, sometimes photographic, sometimes emotional, all too often metaphorical, of Elton John in America — the madman across the water. As impressions, it’s brought out the worst in Bernie Taupin and forced Elton back on his melodic devices. These are sometimes powerful enough to make a song, but too often they’re not. I still like this album, but it’s just that the qualities that illuminated Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection for me have worn thin, and I’m forced to look past the magic and see a singer and a lyricist who are quite fallible.
The record begins well with “Tiny Dancer.” It has the delicate melody, virtuoso singing, and innovative arranging that have marked Elton John since “Your Song.” In fact, it sounds like “Your Song,” with maybe some other familiar melody and a few new touches like a pedal steel. But that’s OK; it may be the same song, but it’s a good song.
“Levon” stands out on the radio simply because any Elton John song would. But, here we begin to encounter a knotty problem that worsens as the album continues. i.e., what the hell is he talking about?
Levon sells cartoon balloons in town
His family business thrives
Jesus blows up balloons all day
Sits on the porch watching them fly
And Jesus, he wants to go to Venus
Leave Levon far behind … I’m no literal-minded dullard but when someone is being obscure, I like to get the feeling that they are grappling with something that’s hard to get to, not just playing with words. In many of Dylan’s songs the meaning was far from clear, but you could sense there was something there. And there were phrases that shone out even if the whole didn’t fall into place. I don’t get that feeling here. And, from listening to the first two albums, I know that the John/Taupin songs I liked best were those I understood. There was strength in those songs, even if they were elliptical. “Levon” sounds good, but I could listen to it for years and never know what it’s about. And it does make a difference.
With “Razor Face,” the situation improves even if I haven’t an idea of what that means either. It’s got the same sort of far-ranging singing and pounding piano that were used so well on Tumbleweed Connection, somewhat like “Amoreena.” Unfortunately, this is followed by the title cut, which is to me, also the weakest. “Madman Across The Water” pits Elton’s acrobatics against Paul Buck-master’s charging strings. But, again the lyrics trip him up. The song is superficially about madness, but is filled with so many obscure images that it’s only a good song if you don’t listen too hard.
Side two is a little less reaching. “Indian Sunset” is a story, with good evocative singing by Elton. The subject matter — the tragedy of the American Indian — almost overwhelms the song, but it manages to be moving. Then, alas, comes another piece of Americana called “Holiday Inn” and about the same: “And you ain’t see nothing/Until you’ve been in/A motel baby/Like the Holiday Inn.” I guess a banal subject deserves banal lyrics, but why bother? “Rotten Peaches” is good basic Elton with a good melody and a wall of sound that fills the room. If only I knew what rotten peaches had to do with the homesickness that seems to be the theme.
It isn’t until the short (1’48”) closing cut, that we get a glimpse of what Elton and Bernie were. “Goodbye” is a haunting, sad song with just Elton and piano and some appropriate strings. The melody sings and the words are poetry. It’s sad, but makes me all the sadder that there wasn’t more like this.
Madman won’t really crush any John fans, for he sings with the same power and brilliance he’s shown since he broke. But, it probably won’t draw any either. Madman is a difficult, sometimes impossibly dense record. America is worthy of a better story than this record and Elton John needs a better story than this to sing.