Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Elton John 6: Madman Across The Water

Elton and Bernie were very busy in 1971, and the third LP was the best of all. The real follow-up to Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across The Water builds on the American influences without relying on any real theme or concept, save superior, mature songwriting.
Some of his best and certainly highly iconic songs load up side one. Everybody knows “Tiny Dancer” by now, or at least can associate it with the male star of Who’s The Boss. “Levon” is one of the most hauntingly moving songs about very little, other than to remind us that English is possibly the only language where Jesus is not used as a given name. Equally mysterious but less serious is the identity of “Razor Face”, although the wild accordion over the end ties in with the Band influence of the track before. Such a jaunty touch is a fake-out setup for the title track, with its vivid, almost cinematic arrangement matching the implicit horror in the lyrics. We particularly like the backwards effect on the acoustic guitar bridging the two halves. (Compared to the version recorded for Tumbleweed but shelved, they made the wise choice to redo it.)
Side two isn’t as immediately classic, but only because it has a lot to follow. “Indian Sunset” attempts to sum up the plight of the Native American. It’s a lovely production, and a stirring song, but the lyrics are what one might expect from a British kid who watched a lot of cowboy movies growing up. It’s a strange jump to “Holiday Inn”, their contribution to the “rock star on the road” genre, with that wonderful mandolin part. We’re guessing “Rotten Peaches” is the plaint of a man in prison, but the joyful accompaniment is such an odd juxtaposition with the words that it works. Speaking of odd, “All The Nasties” brings the choir heard earlier on the album to the fore, even given their own intro to the “oh my soul” mantra toward the end. (Nick Drake fans note: Robert Kirby was the arranger.) Something of a reaction to critics, its message is reinforced by the comparatively brief and extremely mournful “Goodbye”, which predicts future faux-classical pieces like “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word”.
All together, Madman Across The Water is solid, and we must mention Paul Buckmaster’s wonderful string arrangements throughout. In a fine example of “it is what it is”, there were apparently few outtakes of interest. While most of his other albums from his first decade in the business have been reissued and expanded multiple times, this one remained as it always was: nine songs, and that was it. Amen.
Or it would have been, until the 50th anniversary came around, likely put off a year due to COVID-19. The first-ever expansion of the album added a solo live version of “Indian Sunset” from the 11-17-70 concert, previously released outtakes “Rock Me When He’s Gone” and the title track with Mick Ronson, the single version of “Levon”, and a mix of “Razor Face” extended by about two minutes. The bonus disc consisted of piano demos for all the songs on the album—the title track twice—plus another for “Rock Me When He’s Gone” and the full studio version of the outtake. (The Super Deluxe the audio from a mostly solo BBC appearance, consisting of performances of everything on the album save “All The Nasties” on its own disc, plus video content.)

Elton John Madman Across The Water (1971)—
2022 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1971, plus 16 extra tracks (Super Deluxe Edition adds another 8 tracks plus Blu-ray)

1 comment:

  1. Great review, and I happen to agree with every bit of it. Allow me to add this: Listening to the album on the week of its release, I noticed for the first time the artistry of the late bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olson. I was also suddenly hit with a strong appreciation for the ensemble effort that these recordings represent, at least in their performance. I looked for this kind of ensemble work in subsequent EJ albums, and did not find it, albeit with the same players. But I was also prompted to look back on Tumbleweed Connection and the debut album, and was amply rewarded! There was a magical connection between the star and his band in those days! Seems a common thing for a songwriter/frontman to form a strong musical and personal bond with his band as he struggles for recognition in the early years. Alas, that magic fades with the massive success and exposure that follows. Seems a cliché, but one which bears itself out repeatedly. Fortunately we have the recordings to document the fresh bloom on the rose. ...and guys like you to remind us of their value! --Doron