Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Elton John Album (Part 4)

by Jeff Fiedler

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

Made in England (1995, Rocket)

C –

The hit singles from the album make this album seem much, much worse than it is – “Blessed” is fairly pretty, but the title cut verges on parody and “Believe” is Elton’s most interminably boring ballad yet to make the Top 40 – but the surrounding cuts are better than you might expect. “Please” is a very good straightforward rock tune that has shades of British Invasion-era jangle-rock to it, while “Man” refreshingly injects some soul into Elton’s recently-languid balladry, thanks in part to some subtle organ backing from Paul Carrack.

The Big Picture (1997, Rocket)

D  

Technically, nothing here is embarrassing, but nothing here is very inspired, either, and even Bernie Taupin himself considers this the duo’s worst outing together. (That’s not true – I’d still argue that this is better stuff than the amateur Empty Sky, though I’d agree with Taupin that Leather Jackets is actually more listenable than this album. Or at least it’s more fun, anyway.)  “Something About the Way You Look Tonight” is here, which is either really great news or really bad news, depending on how you feel about Elton’s ‘90s-and-beyond penchant for dramatic power ballads. “Recover Your Soul” is pretty, though.

Songs from the West Coast (2001, Rocket)

B –

It’s certainly a huge step back in the right direction, but this album tends to be fairly overrated by critics who were just thankful that Elton was getting back in touch with his old ‘70s sound. Elton still spends too much of his time here in ballad mode (for some reason, Elton sadly all but abandoned writing up-tempo singles after the ‘80s, which is probably why there’s never been a hits package just devoted to his post-Geffen material – the lack of variety in tempos would be much too obvious), but he nonetheless still sounds more inspired here than he has in years, and the set of songs is just strong enough to make it his best outing since at least Sleeping with the Past. The lead-off single “I Want Love” is unfortunately yet another ballad, but it’s got enough interesting instrumental touches, such as Beatles-tinged lead guitar licks and the addition of Billy Preston on organ, to make it his most interesting ballad in at least six years. The surrounding album cuts are far better this time out, too, and “This Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore,” “Love Her Like Me,” “Original Sin,” and, best of all, the soulful and upbeat “Dark Diamond” (featuring Stevie Wonder on clavinet and harmonica) are an encouraging sign that Elton is regaining his footing. It’s not exactly the full return to form that critics made it out to be at the time, but it’s at least a heck of a lot better than any of his ‘90s albums.

Peachtree Road (2004, Universal)

B -  

There are no knockout cuts here, but there are also no bad cuts here, either, and this is a fine continuation of the modest artistic comeback of Elton’s last disc, even if there’s a slight dip in quality. The gospel-tinged “Answer in the Sky,” “Weight of the World,” “All That I’m Allowed,” and “They Call Her the Cat” are the biggest highlights here.

The Captain and the Kid (2006, Interscope)

B –

Elton’s first concept album – albeit a loose one – in decades, The Captain and the Kid is lyrically a sequel to Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and musically a sequel to Tumbleweed Connection. It admittedly plays out at times like a calculated attempt to regain critical favor since Elton realizes that the two aforementioned ‘70s albums remain two of his most beloved albums with music reviewers, even if neither album really did much for him at Top 40 radio, but Elton’s no longer trying to garner radio play, so as a career move, the album does somewhat make sense. Because “classic Elton” is so often misconstrued to mean “super-serious Elton,” that means that this isn’t necessarily all that playful or fun of an album and is a bit too ballad-heavy to appeal all that much to fans who prefer, say, Don’t Shoot Me to the more introspective, wistful pop of Tumbleweed Connection, but it’s thankfully at least more artistic than any of Elton’s ‘90s outings and this is actually arguably a better disc overall than Songs from the West Coast (even if it lacks a song quite as refreshingly easygoing and breezy as that disc’s “Dark Diamond.”) The melodies don’t always take hold, but the album sounds great when it’s on, and Elton thankfully at least occasionally injects a decent uptempo song (like “And the House Fell Down” and “I Must Have Lost It on the Wind”) into the proceedings to keep the album from getting too serious.

The Union (2010, Decca)

B

It’s slightly less consistent songwriting-wise than The Captain and the Kid, but The Union is arguably the more fun album of the two, finding Elton collaborating with one of his heroes, the very underrated early-‘70s singer-songwriter Leon Russell (responsible for penning such hits as Joe Cocker’s “Delta Lady” and Carpenters’ “Superstar,” in addition to his own solo hits “Tight Rope” and “Lady Blue”) over the course of a full album. Elton’s enthusiasm and joy is obvious and contagious, and it’s hard not to smile listening to such inspired and lively collaborations as “If It Wasn’t for Bad,” which might be the best song either Elton or Leon has had anything to do with in the last twenty years. “Monkey Suit,” “Hearts Have Turned to Stone,” and “Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream” are also quite fun, while Neil Young and Brian Wilson make cameos on “Gone to Shiloh” and “When Love Is Dying,” respectively. It never takes itself quite as seriously as any of Elton’s last three discs, so the reviews it received weren’t quite as glowing, but it’s arguably more charming than any of those albums. This is definitely one of Elton’s more pleasant latter-day albums.

The Diving Board (2013, Capitol)

D   

Produced by T-Bone Burnett, this is a very self-consciously arty album (even to the extent of including three brief instrumental interludes, always an obvious sign that an artist wants you to think of their record as an album piece), and critics naturally responded positively, but it’s hard not to feel like the album is a step back in the wrong direction, if only because it just takes itself far too seriously and also focuses way too much on lyrics and mood at the expense of making sure the songs have memorable melodies, which they don’t. (“Take This Dirty Water” comes closest to a strong hook but never quite gets there.) It’s an interesting listen while it’s playing, but the songs aren’t catchy enough to make this album one you’re likely to come back to all that often, and it’s hard not to listen to this album and wish that Elton invested less effort into trying to impress music critics and spent more time trying to pen some melodies as immediate and winning as those that made him a star in the first place.

Wonderful Crazy Night (2016, Mercury)

D

Easily Elton’s most disappointing album since the ‘90s, he and his band (once again featuring the ever-reliable Davey Johnstone and Nigel Olsson) are still in fine form here as a performing unit, and Elton sounds much more playful here than he did on the somber The Diving Board. The inherent problem with this album is that it sounds like these songs were cobbled together by Elton and Bernie in a matter of minutes, as if they were on their way on the studio and realized they didn’t have any material ready to go. The songs just aren’t that catchy, and the melodies frequently don’t even fit the lyrics quite as effortlessly as they do in your average John-Taupin collaborations. (Just listen to the way Elton crams too many words into the chorus of the title cut for it to flow all that smoothly.) The album is saved only by the fact that, stylistically, it at least tries to be fun, which its predecessor didn’t.  
  
Compilations:
There’s no shortage of Elton compilations out there, but because Elton has 58 Top 40 hits to his name as a performer (many of which were not included on his studio albums), there’s no quick or easy way to get all the hits in a single place. The double-disc Greatest Hits 1970-2002 (2002, Universal) is the closest thing available to a thorough career overview for those listeners who just want hits and don’t want to splurge on the boxed set To Be Continued; naturally, it still leaves off quite a few hits due to length constraints, and its desire to encompass his full career means that newer but lesser hits like “I Want Love,” “Blessed” and “Written in the Stars” are unfortunately included at the expense of bigger hits like “Mama Can’t Buy You Love,” “Blue Eyes,” and even the Number One hit “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” but it’s still a fairly handy overview of Elton’s long career. Greatest Hits (1974, MCA) and Greatest Hits, Vol. II (1977, MCA) are the most iconic of his compilations and make fairly handy one-disc samplers of his most important singles from the early and mid-‘70s when he was at the top of his game. (The original vinyl version of the latter included “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” but the 1992 CD reissue replaces these cuts with “Tiny Dancer” and “I Feel Like a Bullet.”) Greatest Hits 1976-1986 (1992, MCA) essentially took the place of the Geffen hits package Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 (1979-1987) (1987, Geffen), eliminating the non-hits “Too Low for Zero” and “Heartache All Over the World” and substituting them with “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” and “Who Wears These Shoes?”. Skip over the one-disc packages Love Songs and Rocket Man: Number Ones; the former’s just too theme-oriented to feel definitive (and why “Daniel” is included is anybody’s guess), and the latter’s an admirable but ultimately flawed attempt to cover his entire career in a single disc, which just results in too many omissions to feel satisfying.    

Live Albums:
Elton has officially issued four live albums during his long career, 17-11-70 (1970, Uni), Here and There (1976, MCA), Live in Australia (1987, MCA), and One Night Only (2000, Rocket). The double-disc Live in Australia yielded a Top Ten hit in its stripped-down live rendition of “Candle in the Wind,” and the expanded 1996 reissue of Here and There (which was a disappointingly short single-disc, nine-track effort when it first came out but was expanded into a double-disc, twenty-five-track album in the mid-‘90s) has the most hits, but the most eye-opening of the four discs is easily 17-11-70, a live set at the Troubadour that captures Elton just before he became a superstar. Naturally, it’s got fewer hits for that reason, but he and his band never sounded more passionate onstage than they do here.

Soundtracks:
Besides his inspired score and songs for the film Friends, Elton’s done quite a few other soundtracks, but it’s hard to label any of them Elton albums per se since he only sings on a handful of songs. His soundtrack for The Muse (1999, Polygram), only features his vocals on one song, the rest of the album consisting of score music. Aida (1999, Rocket) is more of a various-artists soundtrack, though Elton wrote all the tunes with Tim Rice and sings on four, the LeAnn Rimes duet “Written in the Stars” going on to be his last Top 40 hit to date. Gnomeo & Juliet (2011, Buena Vista) mostly consists of older songs (“Crocodile Rock” is needlessly re-recorded as a duet with Nelly Furtado), while The Road to El Dorado (2000, DreamWorks) fares much better. The Lion King (1994, Hollywood/Walt Disney), of course, spawned two major hits for Elton in the form of “Circle of Life” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” but he only sings on one other song, while the remainder of the album is sung by the film’s cast. Still, those two hits alone make The Lion King the second-most worthwhile purchase of Elton’s soundtracks once you’ve picked up Friends.