Friday, November 22, 2019

Elton John 12: Captain Fantastic

The man couldn’t stop and wouldn’t stop, and before you knew it, here was a new Elton John album. Having looked back somewhat with the hits album, for their next multiplatinum move Elton and Bernie concocted a concept album intended to evoke their early pre-fame years as struggling songwriters and performers. Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy even came in another elaborate package with a poster, two booklets of photos and such, and even lyrics to a song that wasn’t on the album because they never finished it.
The title track begins with sounds that recall their Western fantasies of only a few years before, but beyond that brief beginning, the music is mostly contemporary, and not at all evocative of the period when these events were supposedly taking place, no matter what the lyrics convey. Which is fine, of course, and likely helped the album’s sales, but dates the album today. “Tower Of Babel” and “Bitter Fingers” follow the same template—a moody opening referring to snowy pavements and struggles, then a more straightforward backing from the band (most of whom would be sacked before the tour). “Tell Me When The Whistle Blows” is pure Philly soul, with some particularly tasty Davey Johnstone guitar, but it’s a welcome left turn to the classically epic “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”, on some days our absolute favorite Elton John song. At nearly seven minutes, this opus of thanks for being talked out of a doomed marriage was an odd choice for AM radio, but boy, did it sound good.
“(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket” blasts off side two with a killer riff and more Philly soul, but suddenly we’re in Gilbert & Sullivan territory for the jumpy “Better Off Dead”, and “Writing” is pure yacht rock. Luckily, Elton remembered his better albums and was sure to build up to a big satisfying finale. “We All Fall In Love Sometimes” is mournful for most of it, again sounding mildly derivatively classical. The bridge is in a major key, then the verse reverts to the minor before finding its way back to major key for the resolution. Then without warning, “Curtains” takes over. Slow archetypal Elton chords are decorated by his double-tracked vocal while the band peeks in here and there. There are only two verses, each ending with a simple “oh-oh-oh” motif. On the second, the band finally kicks in completely, right on time for a surprising couplet, surprising in that it is not only directed at the audience, but is delivered in the first person plural, Bernie and Elton together: “And just like us, you must have had a once upon a time.” The “oh-oh-oh” is joined by additional wordless harmonies and parts, somewhat reminiscent of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”, bringing everything up to date as the credits roll.
At this point Elton had the Midas touch. Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy shipped gold and was the first album ever to debut at #1 on the Billboard album charts. It still holds well as an album, but today’s ears are beginning to detect that the gravy train might not last. (The initial expanded CD added the pertinent singles “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, along with the B-side “One Day At A Time”, a recent solo Lennon cover. For the album’s 30th anniversary, the B-side “House Of Cards” was added to these on the one disc, while a second presented the bulk of a 1975 Wembley concert where the album was played in order by his revised and expanded band, followed by “Pinball Wizard” and “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”.)

Elton John Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)—3
1995 CD reissue: same as 1975, plus 3 extra tracks
2005 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1995, plus 13 extra tracks

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