Right away the focus is on ear candy, and while “The Bitch Is Back” was a daring title to throw on the radio in 1974, the Tower Of Power horns made it ideal for blasting in the car, though his professing to be “stone cold sober” is at odds with what we now know about those days. “Pinky” is a tender love song with all the hooks we’ve come to expect and adore, whereas “Grimsby” is an ode to a British seaside town and sounds like it’s copied from other Elton John songs. “Dixie Lily” is yet another homage to an American frontier Bernie Taupin only knew from movies, derailed immediately by the wooden train whistle used to illustrate the steamboat. There is no defending “Solar Prestige A Gammon”, a pile of gibberish sung mostly in a jokey operatic voice, and the type of wordplay even John Lennon knew to limit back on “Sun King”. After the tango scare in the intro, “You’re So Static” returns to “Bitch Is Back” territory with far too many castanets and horns dominating the extended end, drowning out the piano and Davey Johnstone’s Leslie guitar.
UFOs were a big deal in the ‘70s, but as he’d already been a “Rocket Man”, “I’ve Seen The Saucers” is from the point of view of someone insisting that he’s already mingled with aliens and would be keen to again. Elton’s stately chords and melody just manage to rise above the wacky sound effects. “Stinker” is based on a dirty groove that would be co-opted by everyone from Journey to Alannah Myles; ultimately he’s more convincing as a bitch than a badass. Then, just when you think the album can’t win you over, two lengthy tracks stretch the heartstrings to their limit. “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” is the epic that’s become bigger than Elton himself, its tantalizingly drawn out verse and soaring chorus featuring actual Beach Boys and Tennille herself, and horns more typical of Elton albums than those of Tower of Power. That would be enough, but the album’s grand finale is “Ticking”, a positively heartbreaking tale of a mass shooting in a New York bar. Especially in an era when there seems to be a school shooting every week, this piano-and-vocal performance, wisely absent of any overdubs save well-placed self-harmonies and minimal synthesizer, absolutely chills one’s bones.
Being that it was Elton John, Caribou topped the charts around the world and sold concert tickets. He could be forgiven a slight dip in quality, but he hadn’t yet learned how to slow down. Today the album is boosted by four non-album tracks: “Sick City” and “Cold Highway” are decent B-sides from the album’s two singles; “Step Into Christmas” from the previous year’s holiday season is nice to have in context too. His version of “Pinball Wizard” (matching his vivid portrayal onscreen in the film version of Tommy) was recorded by his own band—with new buddy Ray Cooper on multiple tambourines—unlike most of the rest of that soundtrack, and gains an interlude reminiscent of the end of “Gray Seal”, plus a coda that quotes “I Can’t Explain”. (Pete Townshend loved it, and so did everyone else.)
Elton John Caribou (1974)—3
1995 CD reissue: same as 1974, plus 4 extra tracks