Friday, March 11, 2016

Elton John 1: Empty Sky

Before the sequined glasses, before the feathers, before the unconvincing hats and worse wigs, before the motorcar, before the wheel, and yes, before the duchess-faced horse, Elton John was a piano player who’d recently changed his name and hooked up with a lyricist. That’s how it worked in those days; two guys sat in a room, one played the piano while the other thought up words. This was the pop tradition, and within a few years Elton John and Bernie Taupin would transcend pop into rock and further.
However, Empty Sky, their first album-length collaboration, is more in keeping with the type of adventurous album rock that was being produced in late 1968. The title track rumbles in on congas, and eventually a crunchy guitar and piano begin the song proper. But as soon as that first line is sung, there’s no question who that voice belongs to. Besides being over eight minutes long, with a flute that reminds us of contemporary Traffic albums and a fake fade with vocalizations inspired by the Stones, the title track is a hidden gem. Being adept at one kind of keyboard, Elton tried to cover all the bases, so “Val-Hala” sports a prominent harpsichord and Hammond organ, and we detect a Dylanesque drawl in his voice. “Western Ford Gateway” predicts a country influence that will become more prominent in time, but what’s most striking is the double-tracked vocal with a strong hint of Lennon. “Hymn 2000” is another case of a decent track buried under a busy arrangement, in this case a flute and organ following the vocal melody too closely, in a strange prediction of Jethro Tull.
While it starts off with that familiar piano touch, “Lady What’s Tomorrow” should have been left simple. An electric piano emerges on “Sails”, driving another crunchy rocker with just as crunchy guitar chords, but “The Scaffold” is just as hesitant as what came before. Then there’s “Skyline Pigeon”, presented here in extreme stereo: Elton’s voice in one channel, and an intricate harpsichord in the other, before the voice moves to the middle on the second verse so an organ can fill in. This one has potential, and he knew it. Everybody says the strangest track is the last, and they’re right. “Gulliver” is a sad tribute to a recently departed pet, escalating to a crescendo of “ah-ah”s, overly flanged and cut off by the jazzy instrumental “Hay Chewed”, and ending with a montage of all the tracks we’ve heard so far.
Empty Sky was not a hit, and wouldn’t even be released in the U.S. until 1975, after his first greatest hits album cashed in on all the songs and albums that actually were hits. MCA somehow chose a new cover even worse than the original. Once all his albums were collected onto the same label for worldwide CD distribution, it was restored in its proper place as the man’s debut, fleshed out by both sides of his second and third singles, which only underscore just how scattered his focus was. But the music is still strong, even making up for Bernie’s lyrics; he’d get there eventually.

Elton John Empty Sky (1969)—3
1995 CD reissue: same as 1969, plus 4 extra tracks

1 comment:

  1. I mostly agree, but I think that "Hymn 2000" is beyond saving because Bernie's lyrics here among his worst here (is this some sort of attempt at aping Dylan?) and the crescendo of "Gulliver" is irritating, even more so because it's heard twice. Couldn't they have finished things off with "Hay Chewed"? And why did they interrupt it just as it was picking up steam? Well, whatever, I agree with the 3/5.

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