With The Fox, the king of Seventies mass-market pop-rock has finally found a comfortable balance between the churchy turgidity of “serious” efforts like Blue Moves and the irresistible thrust of his finest singles. For a change, there’s no glaringly obvious filler, and Elton John’s lusty pop gospel singing eschews the earlier extremes of oratorical histrionics and rock & roll brattiness. Tune for tune, these eleven songs make up John’s most consistently listenable collection in years.
John also seems determined to regain the grip on the pop mainstream he lost after Rock of the Westies. Six cuts were produced by Chris Thomas, whose success with the Pretenders has made him one of today’s hottest aural alchemists. In “Nobody Wins” (the album’s only number not cowritten by John). Thomas seals the star’s mournful vocal in a metallic casement of flashy sound effects propelled by synthesized percussion. With its brilliant artificiality and jerkily mechanical propulsion, this is high-gloss popular music squarely in the mold of “Bette Davis Eyes” and Blondie’s hits.
Because Elton John worked with four collaborators on The Fox (Bernie Taupin penned the lyrics to four tunes. Gary Osborne four, Tom Robinson one, and keyboard virtuoso James Newton Howard cowrote the “Eanfare” instrumental), the LP takes him in several complementary emotional directions. “Heels of the Wind,” the best of the John-Taupin compositions, is a hard-kicking anthem about the freedom of the road, in which Taupin refrains from his customary literary heaviness. But “Fascist Faces.” “Just like Belgium” and “The Fox” find John’s streamlined melodies burdened with pretentious similes, purple imagery and words like “turtlesque.”
John’s collaboration with Gary Osborne has grown much more assured since the duo debuted with the stiffly portentous lyrics of A Single Man. “Breaking Down Barriers,” a frothy love song in the R&B-inflected style of “Philadelphia Freedom,” is the pair’s most spirited achievement to date, while “Heart in the Right Place,” a sour diatribe against rock journalists, evokes rock-star petulance with an amusingly light-handed bitchiness. Lyrically. The Fox high point is a first-person remembrance of a homoerotic boyhood crush. “Elton’s Song,” which John wrote with Tom Robinson. Unfortunately, the tune is too fragmented to nail down the poignantly direct sentiments.
Will The Fox reestablish John as a triple-platinum powerhouse? Not likely, since the lights are still going out all over the pop circus world this artist helped create and then celebrated with such voracious glee. In his mad dash through the Seventies, Elton John exalted and sent up every major commercial trend, from Philadelphia soul to glitter rock. If the new album doesn’t exude the pure, zany adrenalin of his most memorable singles, it’s because this dash not only devoured much of what it embraced but was self-consuming as well. In the end, The Fox sounds less like a comeback than a graceful, mature coda to pop’s banquet years, when Captain Fantastic ruled the airwaves and the champagne never stopped flowing.