Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Elton John Album (Part 3)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Breaking Hearts (1984, Geffen)

C  

Elton doesn’t deviate much from the winning formula of Too Low for Zero here, but most of the songs here sound very much like leftovers, and most of the melodies never take hold. The album does boast three Top 40 hits, but “In Neon” isn’t nearly as cool a song as you might hope it to be from the title and is actually a very forgettable ballad, though the slick “Who Wears These Shoes?” fares better and the Top Ten hit “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” is every bit as good as any of the singles from the last album. “Passengers” and “Slow Down Georgie” are moderately catchy album cuts, and the title cut is a passable ballad, but this is one of the very rare albums penned entirely by Elton and Bernie where the chemistry between them just seems off and there’s a noticeable disconnect between the quality of the lyrics and that of the melodies.

Ice on Fire (1985, Geffen)

B

A definite improvement on Breaking Hearts, Ice on Fire – which finds Elton reunited with his early-‘70s producer Gus Dudgeon – seems much less organic and a bit too synth-heavy but boasts a much more consistent set of songs, highlighted by the deliriously fun brass-heavy strut of the pin-up-girl-themed “Wrap Her Up,” which features George Michael on background vocals throughout and the coda of which comically features Elton and George listing off their favorite sex symbols of the past and present (George even cleverly name-dropping Elton’s former duet partner Kiki Dee), and the gorgeous, soulful ballad “Nikita.” “The surrounding album cuts are stronger this time out, too, particularly the fun “Tell Me What the Papers Say” and the vintage-Motown-tinged “Candy By the Pound.”

Leather Jackets (1986, Geffen)

D +

Easily the worst album he made for Geffen, this is easily the most forgettable Elton John album since Victim of Love. This album is even less organic-sounding than Ice on Fire, but that’s far from being the album’s biggest problem. Elton’s not simply just phoning it in at this point – he sounds like he’s completely lost his footing, and the cover art, featuring Elton and his band (sadly once again lacking Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson) in biker gear, just adds to the feeling that he’s going through some sort of identity crisis. The album’s most dreadful cut, “Don’t Trust That Woman,” is actually a co-write between Elton (going by the nom de plume Lord Choc Ice) and – I kid you not – Cher. There are only two cuts here of any distinction, “Heartache All Over the World” (which Elton himself has called the worst song he’s ever recorded, although that’s far from accurate; it’s not even his worst single of the ‘80s) and the Cliff Richard duet “Slow Rivers.” Not surprisingly, this became his first studio album since Tumbleweed Connection all the way back in 1971 to fail to yield a single Top 40 hit.

Reg Strikes Back (1988, MCA)

C

Elton’s first studio album after re-signing to his old home of MCA (a live album, 1987’s Live in Australia, was actually his first release upon re-signing), Reg Strikes Back isn’t nearly as strong of a comeback as its title implies, nor is it as good as most of his outings for Geffen, though it’s thankfully much better than Leather Jackets, at least. Like his last two studio albums, it still sounds too overly synthesized and not nearly as warm as any of his Too Low for Zero-and-earlier albums sounded (it doesn’t help that Elton has abandoned his grand piano in favor of a digital piano here), and the material’s awfully hit-and-miss, too. “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters (Part 2)” pales wildly in comparison to the Honky Chateau cut it’s named after, but “Since God Invented Girls,” featuring the Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston on vocals, is a fun listen, and “The Camera Never Lies” is arguably Elton’s best non-single of the back half of the ‘80s. There are also two Top 40 cuts here: “A Word in Spanish” is a bit forgettable, but the finger-snapping Top Ten hit “I Don’t Wanna Go on with You Like That” is easily Elton’s best single since “Wrap Her Up.”

Sleeping with the Past (1989, MCA)

B –

It’s not as solid as Too Low for Zero or Jump Up! , and it’s not quite as playful an outing as Ice on Fire, but Elton’s last album of the ‘80s finds him definitely regaining his footing, and this is easily his best album in at least four years. The gorgeous “Sacrifice” is his best ballad since “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” while the charming R&B-tinged “Club at the End of the Street” is one of his most underrated singles of the ‘80s. There’s a third Top 40 hit here in “Healing Hands,” but it’s not nearly as catchy as the other two. “Whispers” and “Blue Avenue” are also fine album cuts.

The Complete Thom Bell Sessions (1989, MCA)

B

Technically, this is just a six-song EP, but this archival release – which couples all three songs from a previously released 1979 EP with three previously unreleased songs from the same sessions – is worth drawing attention to and worth picking up – provided, that is, if you can find it, which is slightly tricky. Much like Victim of Love, these sessions find Elton primarily focusing on his vocals and leaving most of the songwriting and instrumental duties to others, like A&M’s R&B/disco duo Bell & James, while the legendary Thom Bell (the man behind all the best sides by the Stylistics and the Spinners, the latter of whom provide backing vocals here) produces. This project succeeds much, much better than Victim of Love did, Elton seeming much more comfortable singing Philly soul than he did doing Donna Summer-like disco songs, and the songs are pretty good, especially “Are You Ready for Love” and the very underrated Top Ten hit “Mama Can’t Buy You Love,” which could have just as easily worked as a Spinners song back when Philipp Wynne was still in the lineup. It’s actually a shame that Elton and Bell didn’t cut more sides together, because what is here makes you wish they’d compiled a whole album of this nature, since it’s more pleasant than Victim of Love and more easygoing and catchy than most of A Single Man.

The One (1992, MCA)

C  

A step backwards in quality from his last outing, Elton’s first album of the ‘90s is thankfully a lot more organic than any of his late-‘80s albums and sounds much more inviting for that reason on the surface. It’s not exactly one of Elton and Bernie’s better sets of songs, though (even cameos from Eric Clapton and David Gilmour on “Runaway Train” and “Understanding Women,” respectively, aren’t enough to divert attention from the weak melodies), and this album would begin a very long rut for the pair. There are three Top 40 hits included here, though: the title cut is a pretty, if somewhat lifeless, ballad (it was unfortunately a big-enough hit that Elton would continue to write sound-alikes of it for years to come), while the more up-tempo “Simple Life” fares much better, and the stark ballad “The Last Song” is goosebump-inducing. The early-‘70s-soul-flavored “On Dark Street” and “When a Woman Doesn’t Want You” are the best of the non-singles here.

Rare Masters (1992, Polydor)

A

Much like one of the other biggest stars of the ‘70s, Paul McCartney, Elton similarly released a glut of non-LP product during that decade, both A-sides (the Number One hits “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” were only available on 45 for several years until they appeared on greatest-hits packages) and B-sides. While the non-LP hits have popped up on any number of compilations, the B-sides had never been made available in America on either LP or CD until the release of this 2-CD boxed set, which also includes the entirety of Elton’s 1971 soundtrack for the movie Friends (which has never been made available on CD elsewhere, making this package especially handy for Elton collectors). While most of the songs here are B-sides, they’re also from Elton’s peak period, which means it’s still great stuff, and songs like “Bad Side of the Moon,” “One Day at a Time,” “Jack Rabbit,” “Whenever You’re Ready (We’ll Go Steady Again),” and especially the top-notch 1972 re-recording of “Skyline Pigeon” definitely warrant repeated listens. This is also one of the few Elton-only packages of any kind where you can find his seasonal classic “Step Into Christmas.” Rare Masters is a little hard to find these days – many, but not all, of these B-sides have since been divvied up and re-released as bonus cuts on subsequent CD reissues of his earliest studio albums, which resulted in this disc going out of print – but it’s a must-own for Elton fans.

Duets (1993, MCA)

D

An album that just feels like little more than a stopgap project to give his label a piece of product, Duets is a very strange hodge-podge of previously released duets (i.e. his re-recording with George Michael of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”), newly-recorded duets (most of them cover songs) with the likes of k.d. lang, Little Richard, Paul Young, Tammy Wynette, and Leonard Cohen, a re-recording of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” done with, of all people, RuPaul, and a new solo cut called “Duets for One,” there’s really little to recommend this disc if you already own the George Michael duet elsewhere.