During the Emmy Awards, a show which was not merely a train wreck but a train-crashing-through-the-walls-of-the-station disaster, one of the most glaringly WTF moments came when Michael Douglas and Matt Damon strained credulity by insisting that Elton John’s new single “Home Again” fit in so thematically well with their film about Liberace. Not that “Home Again” is a bad song. Far from it. It’s actually a gorgeous ballad with elegant music, strongly impressionistic lyrics, and a haunting arrangement which allows touches of horns and choir to sneak in like the memories of the past Sir Elton sings about. And the performance was superb, as one could expect from one of the world’s premier showmen. It just had nothing to do with anything being honored on stage that night. WHY it was there seems to stem, in my opinion, from a tsunami of positive reactions, mostly from middle-aged critics at all of the major media sources, regarding his new album The Diving Board, released this past week.
I was intrigued by The Diving Board mostly because of the tone of these reviews; over and over again from Rolling Stone to The Wall Street Journal the aforementioned critics declared it “a comeback…his best album since the seventies” and variations thereof over and over again.
This worried me.
I have always been an Elton John fan, ever since preschool when I watched the music videos on VH1 for his string of major hit singles in the 1980s, infectious tunes whose goofy visuals (I still remember the animated “Club at the End of the Street” clear as day) and incessant melodies could disguise serious, moody lyrics. Then my father told me this wasn’t the “real” Elton John and introduced me to his 1970s work. If you haven’t heard the music from when he released seven straight number one albums, you are missing out. “Your Song” from his nascent self-titled LP consists of four of the most perfect, irreproachable minutes of music ever since cavemen banged rocks together, and while that may be hyperbole, it’s the exact opposite to say that four of its follow-ups—Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across the Water, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy—should be in the collections of anyone who cares about pop and rock.
But after this came, admittedly, a 25-year slump. Elton got into drugs. His music became terribly hit or miss, with the truly great singles coming from albums full of dreck. He surrounded himself with electronic and synthetic everything. And he even married a woman! (Crazy times the eighties.) Then he cleaned up and reinvented himself as an adult contemporary balladeer who could also produce blockbuster musical scores. This was nice enough—I mean, who doesn’t love The Lion King?—but it was also boring. Elton John without edge, soul, daring, and bravado just wasn’t right.
Then in 2001 he released, from out of nowhere, Songs From the West Coast, an album as essential as those listed in the previous paragraph. Elton broke out the grand acoustic piano again and wrote twelve blindingly perfect melodies from rockers to ballads, all paired with some of Bernie Taupin’s most clever and emotional lyrics, with a certain theme of a young person’s gaining experience in life and love. Elton’s singing was glorious and he called upon all of his greatest bandmates from the seventies, including Paul Buckmaster to provide majestic orchestration. And above all, he kept it serious, adult, and full of passion. Songs From the West Coast is an album one feels as much as one hears., and there isn’t a single bad minute.
The critics called it a masterpiece, a comeback, his greatest album since the seventies. And it was.
So why are they repeating themselves with The Diving Board?
In part because, I think, Elton John did not fully capitalize on the success of Songs. His live shows (as I can personally attest) became all the more enthralling and Billy Elliot was a mammoth Tony-winner. But his albums…Peachtree Road mixed more sterling melodies with Taupin’s weakest set of lyrics ever, The Captain and the Kid was so intensely personal nobody bought it, and The Union, an unmitigated triumph, was not an Elton John album but a triumvirate of Elton, Leon Russell, and T-Bone Burnett (plus Taupin at his best again) on a rollicking Americana journey. Twelve years since a truly strong solo album makes for dilution. But also in part because of how The Diving Board was made. With Burnett at the helm, Elton decided to abandon large bands and orchestrations, and even record without his usual sidemen and with top musicians handpicked by him and Burnett, including neo-soul genius Raphael Saadiq on bass. Most of the album has him backed only by bass and drums, and recording without elaboration or production gimmicks, to say nothing of electronics, was a great idea in theory.
But in practice, it stinks.
The one consistent strength is that Sir Elton’s piano sounds outstanding throughout; forty-five years of mastering style and technique pay off in a big way. But musicianship means nothing if the actual music is lacking, and from the beginning, the album is in trouble. “Oceans Away,” which kicks off our journey, has too tentative a melody and lyrics where I can’t quite make out what Taupin’s getting at—it seems to be about an old man seeking wisdom from even older people. (???) “A Town Called Jubilee” lifts things up, but it sounds like the eleventh master from Tumbleweed Connection which got left off the final cut. This is bad in comparison to Songs From the West Coast, where the songs were indeed unmistakably Elton but also didn’t sound like they could have fit on any earlier album. Unfortunately I have no time to ponder this, for “My Quicksand” is a song where absolutely nothing of interest happens musically and the lyrics are even worse than “Oceans Away.” And just as Taupin finally delivers some intriguing, heartfelt poetry in “Voyeur,” Elton picks this moment to just throw melody to the wind and half-sing, half-talk over a non-stop repetition of chords that never resolves into a hook.
Then The Diving Board jolts to a new level. The first half may have been disappointing, but now a listener realizes it has a shot at mediocrity, maybe even goodness. “Home Again” comes on, followed by “Take This Dirty Water,” which almost sounds like the left-off final cut from Honky Chateau except that Elton is singing with a resonance and optimism he didn’t display back then, and that matches the roots-rock melody perfectly. And “The New Fever Waltz” is as lovely and moving as “Home Again,” a quirky slice of romanticism (all in ¾, of course), the likes of which I’ve never heard from Sir Elton before. The ears prick up, the heart soars…and then get brought down to lower than the earth with the clichéd, pedestrian “Mexican Vacation” with Elton sleepwalking through the laziest uptempo tune imaginable, and the six minutes of noodling on the title track, which like “My Quicksand” has incomprehensible lyrics and not a shred of melody. This is the big finish.
And this is the album critics are falling over themselves to praise.
The sad thing is, I can understand why The Diving Board has appeal. When an artist in any field makes a project which people hail as a “comeback,” I find that often they want it to mean a “throwback,” the artist doing things the way they did things at their peak all over again. What this notion ignores is that for all of the intelligence and emotion which can go into a creation, art is usually little WITHOUT creation itself, the need to try something new and push one’s self further, to take a risk and do what hadn’t been done before. It was this spirit that made the originals, the point the audience wants the artist to “come back” to, great. And if nothing else, The Diving Board sounds like an uber-comeback record. The warm but clutter-free, stripped down production and minimal accompaniment are throwbacks not only to Elton John’s live show in the early seventies, and many of his studio cuts from the same era, but also to a certain low-key, introspective, mature singer-songwriter sound treasured by the baby boom generation, and to go back to this is certain to bring up nostalgic memories strong enough to cloud over flaws.
This has worth. But it’s not enough. By way of comparison, Michael J. Fox just returned to television with an eponymous new sitcom which is really and truly good, mostly due to Fox and his writing staff devising a premise which allows him to utilize his comic genius and charm while also reflecting the multi-faceted, complex roles he played in the movies and in his guest-starring arcs since the Parkinson’s diagnosis. It’s recognizably Michael J. Fox but it’s also Michael J. Fox stretching out.
Similarly, on Songs From the West Coast, the true comeback album and one of the only albums of that type to be worth something great, Elton John recreated the style and production of his greatest recordings, but wrote from a more adult perspective and composed songs which honed on his years of devotion to the music and which still sounded like nothing he’d done before. There is a polish, a sense of ideas, to songs like “Original Sin,” “I Want Love,” “Mansfield,” and “This Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore” which a younger man could never have reached unless he was a Mozart, the recognition that these notes arranged this way make something memorable. There was a mixture of maturity and freshness, if that makes sense, which made Songs From the West Coast a triumph, a risk-taking album, a real comeback.
The Diving Board is fifty-seven minutes of perfectly played piano and a voice drawing on improvisation and half-remembered ideas from old songs, and little else. It’s pleasant. It may have its place. But it is far from a comeback.
And as a final note, I can still hum every note of Songs, not to mention Tumbleweed, but I could barely remember anything off The Diving Board an hour later.