Elton's still standing after a long, dry spell
And he's singing from the West Coast
By Yong Shu Hoong
Songs From The West Coast
So what makeover can you pile upon a pudgy aging pop star who has never really been considered “cool” even in his heydays? Well, you don’t. Instead, you scale back on glitzy apparels and collagen infusions, and reach right back to the basics to reclaim your truer self – exactly what Elton John has done.
As a riposte to his declining respectability, the prolific British singer tightens up his quality control and strikes back with Songs From The West Coast, a sterling album of defiantly heartfelt songs co-written with longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin.
Fortunately, composer and wordsmith spark off sufficient chemistry to silence the cynics, thereby redeeming Sir Elton from the fate of fading out to the tune of that overplayed Princess Di tribute or (worse still) saccharine love songs from The Lion King. Critics have already been comparing Songs From The West Coast to John’s noteworthy ‘70s outputs (circa Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Madman Across The Water... before he lost his plot and roamed the wilderness for the next 25 years).
Stealing cues from Lennon, the first single is the Beatles-sounding ‘I Want Love’ (with a music video quite appropriately lip-synched by troubled actor Robert Downey Jr), in which John demands love of “a different kind” that won’t break him down or fence him in – basically “love on (his) own terms.” No wonder John calls himself a man who’s irresponsible and dead in places. And no wonder a local DJ, after playing the song on-air, claims she will definitely steer clear of a man like him. But it is amazing how close Taupin’s words hit to the core of John’s temperamental real-life character (as revealed in the Elton John documentary film, the self-explanatorily titled Tantrums & Tiaras).
Similarly, on two songs touching on the issues of gay-bashing and AIDS, the sentiments ring loud and true for the openly-homosexual singer. ‘American Triangle’ is inspired by the killing of gay youth Matthew Shepard in Wyoming: “Western skies don’t make it right / Home of the brave don’t make no sense / I’ve seen a scarecrow wrapped in wire / Left to die on a high ridge fence...” Another queer (albeit younger) singer Rufus Wainwright guests on backing vocals.
‘Ballad Of The Boy In The Red Shoes’ is melancholy on an epic scale – a sweeping number depicting the end days of the AIDS-wrecked. Uplifted by orchestral accompaniment and John’s resounding vocals, the song draws the listener into a world of bittersweet gloom in which the protagonist wades knee-deep in regret and past splendour.
Once again, on this album, John is the piano man who puts his ivories to good use on every track – from opener ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ and the rousing ‘Dark Diamond’ (where Stevie Wonder contributes clavinet and harmonica) to the quietly-haunting ‘Original Sin’ and the gleefully-rollicking ‘Birds’.
On the closing track ‘This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore’, John sings, “I used to be the main express, all steam and whistles heading west...” There is a resigned recognition that even male divas are not immortal. In the meantime, John can still muster his second wind to compete with young upstarts he admires – like Eminem and Ryan Adams (whose Heartbreaker album, made in 12 days flat, was a big inspiration). With this substantial album written and recorded in 31 days, John proves he’s still got it in him to be credible and finally hip.QLRS Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001