At 68 years of age and despite his ever-present mass of adoring fans, glam piano rocker Elton John could be forgiven for packing his bags and climbing into his metaphorical spacecraft of retirement and jetting off into the night sky. Yet admirably, in 2016 the Rocket Man touches down with his 33rd studio album, Wonderful Crazy Night – but has Elton finally burned out his fuse?
Once again featuring the longstanding songwriting relationship between Elton John and Bernie Taupin – a seemingly inexhaustible partnership that has now lasted almost half a century – and with T Bone Burnett producing for a second consecutive time, a sense of smooth fluency and immediate familiarity is created throughout the record. Wonderful Crazy Night also marks the return of The Elton John Band in the studio for the first time since 2006’s The Captain & The Kid, which instantly creates a live and impulsive atmosphere that permeates throughout the album.
Considered by Elton to be “the most up-tempo album I’ve made since Rock of the Westies way, way back”, it is unfortunate that with the heavier tone, stemming from inclusion of his stage band, that Elton’s signature piano playing is largely diminished throughout the record. A deliberate measure, Elton justified the decision in an interview with The Killers’ Brandon Flowers on his radio show Rocket Hour for Apple Music: “When you’re making a rock and roll record nowadays, the piano isn’t the featured instrument: it’s [only a] part of the equation”.
Such is true of the album’s upbeat first and title track, as the tinkling of the ivories is almost lost beneath the vigorous groove of the electric keyboards and synths, which in turn compete with the other focal members of the band – that is until Elton once again reclaims the centre stage, exhibiting yet another highly anticipated, impressive solo. As the opening track from an album deemed to be one of his most joyous, it’s not quite as energetic as could be expected. It’s a hearty and jubilant preface, without being lively; chipper and swinging without being rocking.
Much the same can be said of the entire album; don’t expect to hear anything near the zealous intensity of ‘Crocodile Rock’ or ‘Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)’. Recent live performances of the aforementioned tracks reflect such changes, as he struggles to enunciate the fast paced lyrics in his adopted lower vocal registers and as he shuffles gradually to and from his piano between interacting with and spurring on his audience.
Despite being more ‘wonderful’ as opposed to ‘crazy’, Elton’s latest effort is still a pleasurable listen, though every track pales in comparison to Elton’s best works from his younger years. You won’t find anything as flawlessly brilliant as ‘Tiny Dancer’, or as memorable and iconic as ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’, but that is an expectation that has no longer burdened Elton since the end of the millennium; his more recent works being largely neglected, drowning beneath his multitude of prior successes and previous masterful chart-toppers.
While at times the album does manage to conjure faint echoes of such past hits, it doesn’t create any of its own – perhaps with the exception of the album’s third and most recent single ‘Blue Wonderful’. Complete with an instant-classic piano riff, coupled with possibly the album’s strongest vocal melody and lyrics, ‘Blue Wonderful’ is everything an Elton John song should be.
It’s where ‘Blue Wonderful’ succeeds, that many of the album’s other tracks fail. Its sound structure and sure, untangled lyrics fail to pertain to the rest of the album, which houses uninspired lyrics (‘Guilty Pleasure’), forced metaphors (‘Tambourine’ and ‘The Open Chord’) and an abundant repetition of otherwise unmemorable choruses (‘In The Name Of You’ and ‘Claw Hammer’).
On the other hand, the album’s ballad ‘Good Heart’ and lead single ‘Looking Up’ (reminiscent of Queen’s ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’) are impressive highlights scattered throughout a tiring collection of mediocrity from a pop maestro. “I think as I get older, there’s less pressure. I don’t have to write hit records, because I won’t have hit records, because those days are gone,” Elton confessed in a recent interview with the TODAY Show’s Richard Wilkins. “It’s a new generation of people, there’s a new generation of artists, and it’s their time to be in the sun. I’m not Justin Bieber, I’m not Taylor Swift, and I’m not Adele, and that’s fine. What I am now is a live performer who still wants to make records.”
All things told, if Elton John is as happy and enthusiastic as he has been in the lead up to Wonderful Crazy Night’s release, so too should his audience be. His vibrant personality and beaming face are captured perfectly on the album’s cover sleeve, his sparkling smile infectious to any admirers of his works. No matter what your personal opinion on his towering musical career, Elton is undoubtedly still standing – tall – after all this time. A true survivor.
Wonderful Crazy Night is out now via EMI Music.