Say good knight

Elton John reunites with longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin.

What’s there left to do after recovery, coming out and becoming part of the Disney schlock machinery? Well, the smart money would be to revisit the early years (before the rock excesses got, well, excessive). So here we find Elton John reuniting with longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin on a set of tunes built to recreate the golden period of Elton’s rise as a force in music (roughly up to and including “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”).

There is an easy going charm about much of this collection, produced by Madonna’s collaborator Patrick Leonard. Blink and you could be listening to “Tumbleweed Connection” or “Madman Across The Water.” Unfortunately, somehow the centre doesn’t hold this time around.

Certainly the recreation of the classic Elton sound – stripped down arrangements featuring lots of piano over southern R&B grooves and big hooky choruses with Beatlesque stacked harmonies – is well done, feeling as familiar as your teenage bedroom.

But awkward and often pedestrian lyrics keep us from celebrating this return to form.

Perhaps when the world was a more innocent place Taupin may have seemed more in step, but these days his brand of “moon, june” just doesn’t cut it. “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore” is clearly meant to be an album ending opus; the truth from a writer’s pen at last becomes a slow deathly grind because of the maudlin lyrics: “I never felt enough to cry.” Oh please.

The first single “I Want Love,” where the title is repeated endlessly, becomes an embarrassing ode to dangerous sex featuring a recovered Elton singing, “A man like me is dead in places other men feel liberated.” The Mathew Sheppard tribute, “American Triangle,” or “Ballad Of The Boy In The Red Shoes,” about a dancer with AIDS facing the end of his life, should be worth celebrating. Finally, after years of hiding, Elton seems to be talking directly about his queer experience.

The choruses are pretty but the lyrics are foolishly simple: “Back then I was handsome.” Need we go on? They ruin any chance of living in the listener’s heart. It’s certainly painfully obvious who the straight man is in this collaboration.

Still, this is one of pop’s heavy hitting teams and there are some hands-down winners like “Original Sin,” which manages to capture the duo’s former glory in an unforced way. Most successful are the up tempo tracks, like the gut bucket feel that powers the country blues of “Birds,” or the long dormant glam moves of “The Wasteland” and the ode to his hometown “Mansfield,” where he finally remembers Elton the rocker, the silly queen we all fell in love with so long ago.

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