The Union is a rare gesture in a dying business: an act of gratitude. Elton John repays a long-standing debt of inspiration to Leon Russell — particularly the rowdy merger of soul, country and gospel rapture Russell perfected as a writer, pianist and arranger on 1969 and ’70 albums by Joe Cocker and Delaney and Bonnie — by putting Russell in front of a classy big band, on his first major-label album in a decade. “Your songs have all the hooks/You’re seven wonders rolled into one,” John sings, ever the fan, in “Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes.”
The song, actually about grand entrances and past glories, is almost Russell’s story in miniature. It could be about John too. Both men are a long way from their early flamboyance, when Russell ran the R&B big band on Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and John was leaping from clubs to arenas in oversize glasses. The Union often feels like a conversation: the two trading sober and grateful reflections, in songs like “The Best Part of the Day” and “A Dream Come True,” on the costs and prizes of a life at the top.
That exchange runs through the music. Singing in a strong, elastic growl and matching John’s piano work with low-end rolls and top-note sparkle, Russell jars the younger man from his routine sheen, back to the natural fiber and grandeur of 1970’s Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection. On The Union, produced by T Bone Burnett, John and Russell share the resurrection. Each goes back to what he first did best. Then they do it together.
As a songwriter, Russell is as eccentric as his voice. His love songs hurt far more than they show at first. “If It Wasn’t for Bad” is finely tuned deception: pop strut, Sunday-service glow and mounting bitterness in that gnarled drawl. Bernie Taupin wrote the words to the Stax-heartbreak shuffle “I Should Have Sent Roses,” but the chewy vocal agony is Russell’s. When he and John trade lines in “When Love Is Dying,” against a choral arrangement by Brian Wilson, John goes for the wrenching high notes. Russell sticks to his odd gritty register, heavy with turmoil.
Russell first became famous for his sharp mischief inside the churn on those Cocker and Delaney and Bonnie LPs, and he works for John the same way: salting the vocal choruses and piano-funk exchanges in “Hey Ahab”; ringing John’s earnest rounded tenor with gravelly warmth in the dusky country song “Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream.” John, in turn, drives this alliance like the eager version of himself that first played with Russell on a 1970 tour. The Civil War tale and Band hommage “Gone to Shiloh” could have come from Tumbleweed Connection; the brassy romp “Monkey Suit” would have fit on 1972’s Honky Château.
There is an urgency here too, as if John and Russell know they almost waited too long to bond. “There’s No Tomorrow” is built, with new words, on a 1966 grim blues march, “Hymn No. 5” by the Mighty Hannibal. John takes the sober verses; a pedal steel guitar lines the track like gilt on a coffin. But Russell brings the light and common sense. “There’s no tomorrow/There’s only today,” he sings in that rough, eerie voice, just in front of the choir, like a man back from the brink and glad to be at work.