Friday, February 15, 2019

Elton John 9: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Having recorded several solid albums in a span of time where most artists would be lucky to record even one, it is still astounding that Elton John (and his band, plus lyricist Bernie Taupin and producer Gus Dudgeon) could maintain the pace with a double album. Yet they did; Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is four sides’ worth of catchy tunes, just as one would hope for, covering a variety of styles but all sounding like Elton John. The packaging was pretty classy too, from the clever cover painting to the lyrics and illustrations on the triptych interior.
The daring “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” suite makes it clear this will not be a simple pop album. Within a few minutes the majestic first half goes from gothic to baroque to opera, all with just a synthesizer (courtesy of engineer David Hentschel, just years away from producing Genesis), piano, and phenomenal guitar. It’s a seamless segue to the rocking second half, where we finally hear vocals, and plenty of them. After eleven minutes it gallops away, destroying towns and villages in its wake. For a complete left turn, “Candle In The Wind” would have remained a simple elegy for Marilyn Monroe, at the time barely dead a decade, but a generation later the song was revised to memorialize a certain princess. These days we’d rather skip to the stomping “Bennie And The Jets”, a terrific snapshot of the glam era, complete with whistling crowds over major seventh chords and slapback echo. And that’s one hell of an album side.
Side two keeps the quality high, starting with the pretty title track and its soaring choruses. “This Song Has No Title” is mostly solo, with just keyboards and vocals, and seems to hearken back to his earlier albums. What’s more, it’s followed by a vibrant reading of the three-year-old B-side “Grey Seal”, which is instantly elevated from curio to classic. “Jamaica Jerk-Off” is the first real clunker here, a genre experiment about as inspired as its title. One of Axl Rose’s favorites, “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” is an improvement, although hindsight shows it’s a precursor to a later hit. It’s a downer to end the side, but there’s two more to go.
Side three is a sneaky sequence, starting almost sweetly, but soon the nasty underbelly of the characters surfaces. The wistful “Sweet Painted Lady” reminds us of The Band, with whom we know Elton was familiar, and Willis Alan Ramsay, of whom he may not have been. The seagulls at the end make an odd transition to “The Ballad Of Danny Bailey” subtitled by the years of a bootlegger’s lifespan. The lyrics are okay, but we gotta admit “the harvest is in” is a clever substitute for “you reap what you sow”, and the extended coda takes the song to a higher level. “Dirty Little Girl” is just plain nasty in an almost funny way, even reflecting the end of “Bennie And The Jets” over the fade. But the tone turns once you’re familiar with “All The Girls Love Alice”, a downright frightening tune about a doomed teenager used up like a dirty little girl.
After all that, side four is comparatively fluffy. “Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘N Roll)” sports a cheesy organ part and a roller-rink detour through Palisades Park that Bruce Springsteen would one day take to heart. It pales next to “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”, which out and out rocks. We go back to Hollywood for a tribute to “Roy Rogers”, as if one cinematic icon wasn’t enough, and “Social Disease” continues the Western theme, at least until the saxophone comes in. But then the complicated chord voicings in “Harmony” make a strong case for sticking it out to the end. It might be our absolute favorite Elton song of all.
Many people we respect say Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is his best album, and it is very good, but we can find tracks that would have made better B-sides, than filling out a double LP. Unrelated but still pertinent, its length resulted in its being reissued a number of times in the digital era, first as two CDs, then everything crammed onto one. The 30th anniversary version spread it across two discs again, but added the three B-sides from the album’s singles (which had already been on the expanded Don't Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player) plus a remix of “Candle In The Wind” reduced to vocals and acoustic guitar. (This lineup was also released in a set including a DVD with the recent “Classic Albums” documentary.)
Ten years later, another anniversary edition appeared in several sizes. The standard two-disc had the original album on one, with the other split between modern covers of nine of the album’s songs and shuffled “highlights” from a 1973 concert. The super deluxe book-style version included the entire concert on two discs of their own, with the modern covers augmented by the previous edition’s bonus tracks, both sides of his “Step Into Christmas” single, two earlier versions of “Grey Seal” and, for some reason, “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Pinball Wizard” from the following year—all of which were already available on other expansions and compilations. And a DVD presenting a edit of a 1973 documentary about the album.

Elton John Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)—4
2003 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1973, plus 4 extra tracks
2013 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1973, plus 18 extra tracks (Super Deluxe Edition adds another 18 plus DVD)

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