Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Elton John 19: 21 At 33

He was still selling out concert halls and arenas, but Elton John was obsessed with his chart placings. (He still is to this day.) 21 At 33 was something of an attempt at a comeback, even going so far to include Bernie Taupin and some old bandmates in the mix. But it’s still a mix, and not quite a blend.
“Chasing The Crown” is an excellent opener, with all the rock elements we’ve been missing, and lyrics by Bernie. The female choir fits, but it turns out that blazing guitar is courtesy of Steve Lukather, proving why he banked so much doing sessions. “Little Jeannie” was the hit single, with some “Daniel” echoes in the instrumentation; these days the drum machine in the second verse is a clever touch alongside the real thing. Gary Osborne wrote the lyrics for that one, and the next track is Elton’s first collaboration with Tom Robinson, who’d achieved notoriety a few years before with “Glad To Be Gay”. “Sartorial Eloquence” is a posh way of saying “gee but you clean up nice”, which wasn’t more successful as a hit single under the title “Don’t Ya Wanna Play This Game No More?” Bernie returns on “Two Rooms At The End Of The World”, which would describe and celebrate their tried-and-true writing method. Unfortunately, the track is just too punchy, and while he’d use this blueprint more successfully in the future, the horn and other singers engulf Elton’s parts.
Bernie’s also responsible for “White Lady White Powder”, which was hardly a subtle metaphor even then. The simple piano is soon joined by Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson and turns into something of a retread of “Phildelphia Freedom” without the strings. To underscore their intimacy with the song’s message, three of the Eagles add harmonies. Having seemingly packed his nostrils to the limit, “Dear God” is a limp prayer via Gary Osborne; the music deserves better. (This time the choir includes Bruce Johnston, Toni Tennille and two other veterans from The Wall, plus Peter Noone, of all people.) Tom Robinson also contributed “Never Gonna Fall In Love Again”, here given an arrangement too close to that of “Little Jeannie”, and a sax solo from the guy who used to play with Billy Joel. The genre shifts again on “Take Me Back”, which would do better if it was more overt country, especially given Byron Berline’s double fiddle solo. Finally, “Give Me The Love” is a disco-tinged collaboration with Judie Tzuke, whom we’ve never heard of either, but she was signed to his record label, so there.
While starting mostly strong, 21 At 33 fails as an album, though it’s certainly better than the missteps of 1979. Given his work ethic, he wasn’t about to take any time off. The album title was more of a score than a milestone anyway: he turned 33 years old while making the album, which would be his 21st. (This may seem confusing taking our series into account, but his arithmetic included everything we’ve reviewed thus far, plus Lady Samantha, a UK-only collection of B-sides and rarities issued initially only on 8-track and cassette that we’ll get to in another context.)

Elton John 21 At 33 (1980)—

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