It don’t always work when veteran rockers try to conjure their classic albums’ old black magic. Going back to your roots and whatnot sounds good on paper, but your voice and reflexes change, recording techniques evolve and fashions shift. Maybe you’ve actually grown up, even if your audience hasn’t.
With its backward-looking cameos by Stevie Wonder, Billy Preston and kindred soul Rufus Wainwright, Songs From the West Coast attempts to reinstate Elton John as an album artist. It aims to recapture the expansive sounds and sensibility of Madman Across the Water, Honky Chateau and other early vehicles that blasted pop’s rocket man into the AM-FM stratosphere, before mega-celebrity, a nonstop work ethic and a whole lotta drugs dissipated his gargantuan gifts. Maybe breaking with John Reid, his longtime manager and onetime partner, allowed John the clarity to hear what he’d lost. Or maybe seeing the way Almost Famous viewers re-embraced “Tiny Dancer” motivated the spectacled one to reach for that soul-deep melodrama again.
For a moment, he grasps it. With its pensive George Harrison-esque guitar, Ringo-y drum thud and authentic Preston organ, “I Want Love” showcases John’s hookiest chord progression in years, and the toughest Bernie Taupin poetry in decades: “A man like me is dead in places other men feel liberated,” John spits out, owning every succinct phrase. Other tracks miss admirably. “American Triangle” addresses Matthew Shepard’s homophobic murder with awkwardly specific lyrics that narrow the widescreen scope of John’s classical-minded composition. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” flashes back to Tumbleweed Connection‘s Americana, but its verse is too wordy, a few notes too low and hillbilly corny.
“Ballad of the Boy in the Red Shoes” is the best of the rest that fall between rediscovery and self-homage. Former Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard helps John re-create the muscular orchestration of “Tiny Dancer” to metaphorically suit Taupin’s tale of a male ballet master thinking back on former glories and family frustrations as AIDS claims his once-agile body. John can’t always send his music soaring the way it used to, but its spirit and ambition have finally come back home.