August 1st, 2009
Composer/Performer/Legend Elton John and longtime lyricist and classical poet Bernie Taupin's last three studio albums have been a fruitful, fascinating journey, and I'm sure that there's more to come. From a fanatic's standpoint, Songs From The West Coast would have made a perfect swan song for the performer. A final send-off before his ultimate demise. I don't regret that he's lived and recorded since, but the album is so perfect, and so close to his roots from Elton's glory days in the '70s that the it's near-impossible to trump a second time in his career.
Elton even claimed, in classic Elton burning-bridges style, that this would be his final studio album. Listening to the tracks, it's no surprise that this was the first series of songs in ages where Elton and Taupin composed the album together in person. It brilliantly refers back to the roots of his success while avoiding all references to such. 'Emperor's New Clothes' (a Billy Joel homage), 'Dark Diamond' (with Stevie Wonder on a turn at the harmonica yet again), the sublimely simple and existential 'Birds', and the retrospective yet hopeful 'This Train Don't Stop Here Anymore' stand out as hallmarks to the late musician's career. Taupin draws from a reserve of prodigious lyrics for this album with stunning skill, and drives it home with 'Original Sin' and 'I Want Love', a song that shows us the team is still capable of sucker punching us into a state of romantic catharsis: /A man like me is dead in places/Other men feel liberated/I want love on my own terms/After everything I've ever learned/.
Elton's boyfriend and future husband David Furnish was photographed for the album cover as the cowboy. Director of Operations Bob Halley was captured for the shoot as the man being handcuffed to a squad car outside of the diner. This series of videos was no less than brilliant, with Robert Downey Jr. lip synching Elton's vocals to 'I Want Love' to Justin Timberlake portraying an uncanny '70s Elton in 'This Train Don't Stop Here Anymore' to Liz Taylor and Mandy Moore showcasing the video to 'Original Sin'. With a small handful of duds, it's a shame that West Coast came out a week before September 11th, 2001 in the States. It could and should have fared much better on the charts if it wasn't for the deep psychic impact of the terrorist attacks.
Later in the 2004, Elton and Taupin returned to their origins again with Peachtree Road, an album that explored not only a few of their musical roots but those of the south as well as blues and country music, focusing on the dichotomy of Peachtree Road and Natchez Trace, two integral locations (one rural and one metropolitan) in Atlanta, Georgia, where Elton has lived some of the time (along with his mansion in London as well as Venice) in a condominium he's owned since the early '90s.
Either as a result of lounge singing or the weight of age, the album had a softer, more reflective feel with less of a need to impress critics, charts, or naysayers. Elton and Taupin were very proud of the album's thematic strength, so much so that a special edition was issued (2004) including three singles from the musical for Billy Elliot along with extended liner notes, additional photos from London photographer Sam Taylor Wood's trip to Peachtree Road in Atlanta, and a nine track DVD taken from a concert at The Tabernacle in November of 2004 in Atlanta with live tracks from the album. The bonus tracks ('The Letter', 'Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher', and 'Electricity') are disposable, while the concert offers commentary from Elton between songs on the creative process behind the album backed by the full chorus that helped to record the album. The photo sessions are barren, memorable and captivating.
Nevertheless, Peachtree Road is a solid, thematic, stripped down project that churns along on it's own merits, referencing historical tectonic points and biographical moments at the drop of a hat while capturing the listener at the same time. With Taupin and John conceiving it as a bookend to the decidedly darker tone of Songs From The West Coast, Peachtree Road emanates a positivity that comes from a lifetime of success and the small creature comforts of old age. 'Weight Of The World' was written about Elton's new phase in life, and how he no longer needed to carry the burden of success. 'Porch Swing In Tupelo' recalls a porch swing that Taupin meditated upon during a party with friends in the South: /And this place don't change/some places move slow/I'm just rockin' myself on this porch swing in Tupelo/I got nothing to do 'cept hang in the breeze/Ghosts of the old south all around me/let's swing high let's swing low/here on this porch swing in Tupelo/. 'Answer In The Sky' contemplates everyone's basic need to believe in a higher power, while 'Turn The Lights Out When You Leave' visits country music leanings that Elton hasn't entertained in over a decade, while 'My Elusive Drug' shows Elton and Taupin 'addicted' to the last drug left for them in this lifetime: sobriety. 'Freaks In Love' has roots in the '92 single 'Fat Boys and Ugly Girls' with more of a lounge feel to it. The single 'All That I'm Allowed', while a poor choice for a single, shows a contented, grateful mindset from John and Taupin with their station in life and the unbelievable good fortune they've enjoyed in their careers. Sadly, the album only made it as far as 17 on the U.S. Billboard Charts and 21 in the U.K.
'It's Getting Dark In Here' is indeed one of the darkest lyrics that Taupin's ever written, focusing all of his neuroses and pessimism with the modern day into a white-hot cynicism, courting death like a traditional poet should:/I'm scared of strangers on the street/World's so ugly I can't breath/Wind's picking up things so unclear/I've lost it all and it's getting dark in here/And the weight isn't worth what I'm getting/Sometimes I feel I'm on fire/I've been handed a curse and a blessing/My life's been stripped down to the wire/And I'm trying to get back and hold on/Find someone somewhere who cares/But the sun's always setting on my life/And it's sure getting dark in here/. The lyrics chill to the bone with Taupin's matter-of-fact realization that death is around the corner. 'I Can't Keep This From You', the final song on the album, is a torch song worthy of the ages, with a gentle, organ-driven melody from Elton.
In 2005 while Elton was touring to promote Peachtree Road, he hinted at the album to come by performing almost complete live versions of Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy (celebrating the 30 year anniversary of the album) in Boston, Atlanta, and New York City, with concerts running at three and a half hours. These were among Elton's longest concerts in the history of his career. During the same year, Madame Tussauads (a wax museum in London) made a statue of Elton that took over 1,000 hours to complete.
Celebrating the 30th anniversary of Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy and setting themselves up for a very tough act to follow, Elton and Taupin released The Captain And The Kid, revisiting the concepts and themes behind the original album. The cover is the first album where Elton and Taupin have appeared together iconically with Elton slumping at the piano and Taupin looking off into the horizon perched on a horse with a cowboy hat. The sheer fact that John and Taupin's working relationship has outlasted all their peers, beaten numerous chart records and endured four decades at the whims of popular music, four marriages on Taupin's end and the dangers of fame and drug excess on Elton's will most likely never be repeated in popular music.
They are one of a kind, and their story is epic. Captain And The Kid is one of their proclaimed final chapters in their tale. As Elton sings on the painful and powerfully nostalgic final song, 'The Captain And The Kid': /And you can't go back/And if you try it fails/but looking up ahead I see a rusty nail/A sign hanging from it saying 'Truth Be Told'/And that's what we did, no lies at all/just one more tale/ about the Captain and The Kid/. The song begins with the basic melody to the original "Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy' and ventures off into it's own soft, beautiful melody. Universal Records announced that they would not be releasing any singles from the album as the emphasis is on the album as a whole. Embraced and adored by critics, it has been hailed as their finest body of work since 'the Carter years'.
Much like Peachtree Road, it's subtle nuances and latent potency have grown on me immensely. It's impossible to match the creative and commercial success of the original Captain Fantastic album and deliberately making comparisons to the effort was a headstrong gamble on Elton and Taupin's part. It comes within striking distance, though, which is amazing in and of itself. 'Just Like Noah's Ark' explores their first blush of fame in the '70s and 'Wouldn't Have You Any Other Way (NYC)' captures their love for New York and Studio 54 during it's heyday and their first career arc. 'Tinderbox' deepens the song-writing relationship between John and Taupin: /We've been living in a tinderbox/Two sparks can set the whole thing off/Rubbing up together around the clock/Lately we've been gettin' more roll than rock/You and me together in a tinderbox/. Elton deliberately used analog keyboards to recapture the production sound of their '70s inspiration while Taupin's basic but mostly well-crafted lyric structures resonate as a result of their simplicity.
Songs like 'And The House Fell Down', and 'Blues Never Fade Away', reference the death of Lennon as a'Sun King' with a 'lust for life' and mourning the death of many close friends to aids while pondering Elton's good health and fortune in the face of all his indulgences. 'The Bridge' resonates intentionally as a close cousin to the melody from 'Your Song'. It's a meditation on their entire career and the hope that every song they labor on either crosses the bridge and succeeds in the hearts and minds of their listeners or fades away into the web of time. It's an incredible song, and listening to it brings me to the edge of tears with it's strong melody and Taupin's prodigious lyrics every time. Some theorize that Elton and Taupin are at their very best when they craft sad songs and there's a lot of truth to that. 'Old '67'' celebrates their first flush of fame as the two reflect signing with Dick James as older counterparts, and 'The Captain and The Kid' brings the entire autobiographical fable full circle.
Their last three studio albums have been a fruitful, fascinating journey, and I'm sure that there's more to come. No songwriting team can reproduce or replace Elton and Taupin, and only a fool would attempt to. Songs From The West Coast, Peachtree Road and The Captain And The Kid are a resounding triumph in composition, execution and the tenure of hit-making prodigy. I cannot wait to see what the boys come up with next.
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