Friday, July 15, 2016

Elton John 2: Elton John

Fittingly, on an album with an eponymous title, Elton John is where the man’s sound was established. According to one source, it was released on April 10, 1970, which is also the day “Beatles Break Up” headlines appeared around the world. Considering how Elton John was about to dominate the new decade, that coincidence seems quite notable.
This is the album that begins with “Your Song”, his first big hit, and one of the sweetest songs ever written. A harpsichord drives “I Need You To Turn To”, something of a step back to his first album, but “Take Me To The Pilot”, which even the authors profess ignorance as to the meaning, is the template for Elton’s rock sound. “No Shoe Strings On Louise” is about as convincing country as Mick Jagger’s attempts, but it’s got a catchy chorus begging for a singalong. By sharp contrast, “First Episode At Heinton” pits an extra-poetic lyric against a near-classical melody, with a string arrangement setting it squarely in another era, but for the occasional touches of an electric guitar through a Leslie speaker.
The somber mood hangs over into side two, with the nightmarish strings that open “Sixty Years On”, giving way to a plucked harp and a Spanish guitar that accompanies the verses. It’s a depressing song, a lament for an almost certain lonely future, even more so when the strings return to dominate the instrumental break. Constructed with a similar ear for classical but with a gospel, almost hymnal influence, “Border Song” was mostly neglected until its inclusion on Elton’s first hits album, but since then it’s been appreciated for the classic it is. The pomp returns for “The Greatest Discovery”, as it must much the very, very serious lyric, that in the end reveals… a toddler viewing his newborn brother for the first time. If anything, the best part of the track is the faded-in-and-out coda of piano and wordless singing. “The Cage” isn’t Elton’s most convincing rocker yet, and the fake horn synth break is an odd choice, as if they couldn’t get the real thing. “The King Must Die” almost seems a better development of the musical themes of “Sixty Years On”, with more of a rock backing, and a lyric that can’t decide it it’s allegory, metaphor, or literal.
While Elton John is more in line with what hindsight has told us to expect from him, he’s still trying to figure it out himself. Not quite rock, not quite pop, certainly not prog but not without its influence; eventually the sound would be all his own.
The initial revamp of the catalog added three contemporary singles: the B-side “Bad Side Of The Moon”; the flop single “Rock And Roll Madonna”, which used canned applause a few years before a better song would; and its flip, the first recording of “Grey Seal” that only hints at the track it would one day become. If not for the drums and orchestra, it could be considered a demo. (Speaking of which, no less than 13 piano demos were included on the album’s eventual Deluxe Edition, including a few others that didn’t make the album, and three songs from a BBC session.)

Elton John Elton John (1970)—3
1995 CD reissue: same as 1970, plus 3 extra tracks
2008 Deluxe Edition: same as 1995, plus 17 extra tracks

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