2006 / Music

Review: Elton John Basks In Nostalgia On New Disc

Legendary Piano Man Releases First New Album In 2 Years

The adage that “you can’t go home again” is fiction (and that’s not just because it’s the title of a famous Thomas Wolfe novel). The true wisdom that lies beneath this rather common saying is that you really shouldn’t revisit the past.

Photo: Interscope Records/Mercury Records

Photo: Interscope Records/Mercury Records

If you need further evidence of this cruel reality, there stands rock legend Elton John’s new album, “The Captain And The Kid,” a glowing example of sappy nostalgia and songwriting depravity taken to the very edge of the precipice. We should expect nothing less from one of the poster boys of ’70s rock excess.

The 10-track album is a reunion between John and his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin and doesn’t hide that it is a cyclical revisiting of their partnership’s creative apex, 1975’s “Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy.” While artists like Neil Young can somehow cough up yet another semi-decent “Harvest” clone, John and Taupin just don’t have the songwriting magic anymore.

Like its 20-year-old predecessor, “The Captain And The Kid” is in many ways the audio equivalent of a buddy movie. (Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why Taupin was hired to write the lyrics to some of the songs on the ultimate buddie movie, “Brokeback Mountain.”) The new songs reminisce about the pair’s good times and tragedies and also the obstacles bested. These tracks have similar premises as the ’70s material, but the new cuts lack musical grace and naked emotional power.

“The Captain And The Kid” is supposed to be a fun album but is unappealing because of its ham-fisted-ness and cheesiness. During its lowest points, it’s like a bad imitation. This is because the duo seem unsure of how they did what they did and there’s little poetry to its messages and no natural flow in the music.

The opening song, “Postcards From Richard Nixon,” is a suitable bridge from the present to this harkened past. The title and lyrics have obvious contemporary overtones and parallels although John/Taupin keep the lyrical subjects rooted in the Watergate era. The song’s main melodies are note-heavy, descending piano and guitar patterns that never coalesce into a full-blown hook. John’s voice is deeper than before and rich in tone. It is a comfortable introduction but this rocket never takes off.

The next, “Just Like Noah’s Ark,” is better and funkier. The song is a ’50s, slow-mo boogie that would be at home in any old-time, stylish bordello, with John singing about all kinds of bacchanalia. The track has an energentic if dignified groove and terrific Hammond organ and guitar solos come soaring up from the saloon piano and meaty, blues bass line.

Similarly, “And The House Fell Down” rests on a spare but muscular bass pattern. John’s piano is less a constant presence here and instead teases out each verse with a little flourish. The song’s chorus surprisingly has an identical musical drive to John’s ’80s hit, “I’m Still Standing.” Unfortunately, this isn’t the only indication that John is recycling ideas. It’s one of many.

The ugliest examples are the record’s sentimental ballads, “The Bridge” and “Tinderbox.” Both enlist the most clichéd musical cues — “Abbey Road”-era Beatles backing vocals and big, show-stopping conclusions — while still begging you to get your lighter out like it was the first time. Worst still, the lyrics to “The Bridge” are so barren of any kind of imagery or wisdom that when the track’s central metaphor is fully unveiled and the message comes into view, the results are underwhelming.

Compared side by side, it’s hard to say which is worse: the over-the-top, theatrical music or the schmaltzy, uneven lyrics. Taupin never ranked among classic rock’s greatest lyricists, but he’s proven an astute observer of people and can be an imaginative storyteller. Now, Taupin’s lyrics don’t seem to interlock with John’s music. “The Captain And The Kid” features plenty of lyrics that are an embarrassment. While he jokes in one song about “winding up rhyming moon and June” back in the old days, he does barely better on several tracks:

“In a bright, red Porsche on Sunset/I saw Steve McQueen/He’s just about the coolest guy I’ve ever seen.”

“It’s good to shoot the breeze/Just you and me on a balcony/And cicadas singing in the trees.”

“I’ve seen the bridge/And the bridge is long/And they built it high/And they built it strong.”

Perhaps sensing that the new tracks needed some help, the pair included some obvious references to Bob Dylan’s music on a couple of songs. “Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way (NYC)” has lyrics that briefly crosses paths with a well-know musical portrait that Dylan did in the mid-’70s, but just when you think it’s a coincidence, a guitar plays a snippet of Bob’s “Lay Lady Lay.”

The Dylan-by-way-of-Billy Joel on “I Must Have Lost It On The Wind” is a far more contradictory song. The song boasts some understated interplay of mandolin and acoustic guitar that shepherd listeners into chirpy, harmonica-flavored interludes. Lyrically, however, the song waxes philosophical about love in the vaguest possible terms, but its chorus taints it so that it just might as well be another in a long line of rewrites of “Blowin’ In The Wind.”

Throughout his career, John’s singing, playing and composing skills have always been a means to an end and thus subordinate to John the entertainer and pop star. “The Captain And The Kid” follows this flight plan. If you’re after overly obvious big choruses and Disney-like warm feelings, this is your record.

If John and Taupin wanted to just celebrate their history, they certainly have a right to. But by having “The Captain And The Kid” take on the mantle of their finest work, the duo must also accept the dangers of such a move. The inescapable problem with this new record lies in the comparisons to the past, which “The Captain And The Kid” invite listeners to make. These new songs aren’t new, they sound like formula. Futhermore, they don’t speak with the kind of yearning and relevance that the one old ones did. They are oddly generic and bland for war stories.

With “The Captain And The Kid,” John and Taupin defiantly say that you really can go home again. Of course, you can. But this record posits: Why would you want to?

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2006 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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