The highs and lows in Sir Elton John’s musical career, blanketed in emotional profundities and ambiguities on many days and plain grandiose on others, have often sparked debates. There have never been any doubts about him being the master at sleight of hand (there is the knighthood and our own midnight listening sessions to vouch for that). But now, when John is 66, the situation he is in is slightly baffling: after selling millions of albums, the man’s live shows still garner heaps of love, but his new works, albeit decent in the last decade, haven’t really caused a stir. At his concerts, most wait for him to go back to The bitch is back and Candle in the wind. One wonders if that’s a compliment or a comment on his current situation.
In his 31st album, which comes after a decade or so, we hear a different, stark, no razzle dazzle Elton John. This is not the guy from the past. He’s better, sometimes labyrinthine and mostly more than euphonious. He has gotten rid of the gaudiness of the last four decades. This one blends some fantastic scholastic arpeggios and the sweet dullness of hymns with a sprinkle of blues, a little bit of razzmatazz (he can’t completely get rid of it), and a large helping of country.
Bernie Taupin’s (John’s lyricist since 1960s) hands are all over this one. Oceans away, the opening track in the 15-song album, is a throwback to the musician’s ’70s style. The fantastic piano playing punctuated only by John’s baritone is delightful. This is followed by an attempt at telling us Oscar Wilde’s thoughts on his release from jail. He is wistful in The ballad of blind Tom, where he takes us inside the head of a slave pianist. The haunting piano paired with bass drumming make you wonder why did he ever go electric? The melodies in The Diving Board meander through the meadows, the turn of phrase as smooth as the melody and chord progression as unpredictable as John himself. There is the country-flavoured My quicksand in that quavery voice. It’s the simplicity with piano and a simple guitar hook that strikes a chord. Home again takes us to John’s days at the small pub of London’s Northwood Hills Hotel, close to where he grew up. Take this dirty water has his deep, doozy voice doing the magic with hymn-like chorus and a simple backbeat. The music is gracious and simple, but a flair and technique is in place. The new fever waltz is all about finding love after you’ve been there done that. Not a great melody; it sounds like a mishmash of all the other tracks so far.
Towards the end, the songs get repetitive and we wait for that one stroke of genius. And John delivers. The most fantastic number of the album is the title track and is saved to be savoured in the end. One can’t help but be swept away by the power of Took a high dive. The brusque intensity makes us fall in love with the voice all over again.
John isn’t trying to get his lost glory here, he is turning the page. Buy it for a piece of John’s legendary-ness and genuine 75 minutes of music.