Graded on a Curve:
Elton John,
Elton John

The release of the musical biopic Rocketman–which just so happens to coincide with Elton John’s triumphant Farewell Tour–reminds us of just how much everybody’s favorite pudgy glam superstar has given us over the years.

Elton will forever be remembered in large part for his showmanship, but on his 1970 eponymous U.S. debut he has yet to begin the transformation from bespectacled nebbish to the most fantastical creature this side of Jobriath. On the cover, he hides in the shadows; Captain Fantastic, with his flamboyant costumes and knee-high platform boots, is nowhere in sight. But while he had yet to perfect his glittering persona, the classic tunes are here–both “Your Song” and “Border Song” have gone on to become rock standards.

Elton John shows other glimmers of the glories to come. The smashing piano rocker “Take Me to the Pilot” is a preview of the tough guy who would give us “The Bitch Is Back” and “Saturday Night’s Alright (for Fighting).” And the Rolling Stones pastiche and rock ’n’ roll readymade that is “No Shoe Strings on Louise” would fit quite nicely on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

But the album doesn’t hold up as a whole, primarily because Gus Dudgeon (or someone) simply refused to let the songs speak for themselves. Instead, Dudgeon (or someone) gussied many of them up with fussy and overbearing orchestral arrangements. Adding to the problem are the intrusive embellishments of Diana Lewis’ Moog synthesizer; I would direct your attention in particular to the otherwise hard-rocking “The Cage.” Finally, Elton himself schmaltzes up one song (“I Need You to Turn To”) by accompanying himself with the harpsichord. Message to Elton: put that thing down this minute!

The strings aren’t always intrusive; “Take Me to the Pilot” withstands their abuse, and they work quite well on “Border Song” and the majestic album closer “The King Must Die.” But they do a monstrous disservice to “Sixty Years On,” as is apparent by comparing the “smothered in strings” version here with the stripped-down take on John’s excellent live in the studio LP 17-11-70. Schlocky strings also mar “The Greatest Discovery” (which isn’t one of John’s better tunes to begin with) and the otherwise quite decent “First Episode at Hienton.” Lewis’s moog doesn’t do the latter song any favors either.

Elton John is one of the lesser–if not the least–of the LPs John would release in the first half of the seventies. The songwriting’s hit or miss, but it’s most glaring problem is it isn’t all that much fun. With the exception of “No Shoe Strings on Louise,” it shows none of the zany high humor (think “The Bitch Is Back” or “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself,” with its tap dance solo) of such LPs as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road or Caribou (my personal faves).

Feel free to disagree, but it is my opinion that Elton John was the most successful artist of the seventies because he was the most amusing artist of the seventies. Sure, his so-called serious songs will live on forever. But he’ll be better remembered for his singular commitment to making a complete spectacle of himself.

Elton’s a Wildean figure; he’s lived his life according to the inimitable Oscar’s dictum that “Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.” He’d yet to figure this out on Elton John. Still, the album has its pleasures.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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