Thursday, April 22, 2010

Rock Solid: Elton John

"If you only own one album by Elton John it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.


Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best. Rolling Stone serves as a tiebreaker in many cases and as a pain in the ass in others.

The declared winner will be subjected to the Thriller Test (do I need to explain the name?), a set of 4 criteria an album should meet to be considered a masterpiece. Those are 1) at least 3 hits, 2) great album tracks that sh/could have been hits, 3) no filler, and 4) memorable cover art.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

Any long musical career is bound to have peaks and valleys, and Reginald Dwight has peaked and valleyed like no other. We already know from the Rock Bottom entry that his low points were low (so much so that he had two albums statistically tied for last place). But what about his highs? His run of albums in the early-to-mid '70s is mind-boggling in quantity, quality and sales. Will it be as difficult to find a clear masterpiece as it was to find his worst album?

Yes and no. Unlike his Rock Bottom, one album stands out statistically above all of the others. That's Elton's third effort, 1971's Tumbleweed Connection, a loose concept album about the American wild west. The album got 5 star ratings from both the All Music Guide and Amazon.com. The competition was not far behind, with 1973's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road coming closest (it actually scored slightly better with the fans, percentage-wise). Honky Chateau (1972) and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975) also made valiant efforts. Though the choice is clear, I have reservations about it, and I'll explain why in a bit. First, let's hear some justifications.

Of Tumbleweed, All Music Guide review-writing-machine Stephen Thomas Erlewine said, "[Bernie] Taupin's lyrics are evocative and John's melodic sense is at its best." Amazon.com fans agree. Kim Fletcher opines, "At all times the musicianship and songwriting is faultless." D. Haralson believes it is "by far, his greatest album ever." And Nathan Sikes says, "Tumbleweed Connection is the yardstick by which all of Elton's subsequent material should be measured." Even Sir Elton himself singled out Tumbleweed Connection: "Lyrically and melodically, that’s probably one of our most perfect albums. I don’t think there’s any song on there that doesn’t melodically fit the lyric."

Personally, I think the critics and fans (and even Elton) whiffed this one. Though Tumbleweed is wonderful album (it's consistent and enveloping, and Come Down In Time, Amoreena, and Burn Down the Mission are all excellent tunes), it simply can't be Elton's finest work. Why? Three reasons:

1) I think a masterpiece should serve as a sort of encapsulation of an artist's talent and appeal. Tumbleweed shows off Elton's talents for sure, but in a very uncharacteristic way. Think about it. What is Elton known for besides sparkly glasses and gap teeth? Poppy hit singles, right? The man has 22 top tens on the U.S. chart alone. Tumbleweed Connection is an album with ZERO hits. And it's less pop music than it is folk-country and honky tonk. It's not representative of Elton's career in any way. And while I can definitely appreciate the irony of that, irony does not a Rock Solid make.

2) I'm afraid that Tumbeweed Connection is the rock snob's choice for Elton's best precisely because it's so unlike his other work. See, rock snobs aren't supposed to like successful artists, so Elton is off limits. But finding a good album by him that a) few people have heard of, and b) has no hits, is like striking hipster gold. Witness Amazon.com reviewer Hal Kronsberg: "Admittedly, before this album, my only real Elton John experiences came from hearing him on the radio. His most frequently played tracks out in Mississippi range from the banal Daniel or the inane Crocidile Rock and the cheese-ball Your Song. Basically, I was firmly convinced that Elton John was little more than a British Billy Joel and above all else, a world-class weiner [sic]. But hearing this album completely changed my opinion of him." And Kronsberg is not alone. Several other reviewers (Mr. King and John Stodder, I'm looking at you) wrote some variation of the backhanded compliment: "I hate Elton but I love this album."

3) Without even going through the criteria, I can tell you Tumbleweed Connection fails the Thriller Test. I don't apply this test to every artist, but if any artist's "best" album should be able to pass it, Elton's should.

Thus, to me, Tumbleweed's main challenger, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, seems a better choice. It contains the following top 10 hits: the title track, Candle In the Wind, Bennie and the Jets, and Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting. That's in addition to under-the-radar classics like the epic Funeral For a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding and pretty closer Harmony. It's a double album, over-the-top and outlandish and stylistically diverse. It was also wildly successful, selling 7 million copies in the U.S. alone. These are the things one thinks of when they think of Elton John, making it a better choice for Rock Solid. It's not a perfect album by any means, but it does encapsulate Elton John's artistry. Earlwine has my back on this. "In many ways," he writes in his All Music Review of Yellow Brick Road, "the double album was a recap of all the styles and sounds that made John a star."

My own personal favorite is neither Tumbleweed nor Yellow Brick Road. It's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, a record that's somewhat a combination of the two. Like Tumbleweed it's hit-starved (Captain Fantastic at least had Someone Saved My Life Tonight) but consistent. Like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road it's representative of the Elton experience, from the lavish cover art to the songs, which range from country and folk to rock and dramatic pop balladry. Plus, I'm a sucker for autobiography and self-mythologizing.

By the way, Rolling Stone agrees with me. On its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, Tumbleweed Connection placed at 463, well below Captain Fantastic's 158 and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road's 91. The magazine, though complimentary when reviewing the 2008 Deluxe Edition of Tumbleweed Connection, was not over-the-moon about the album originally. Critic Jon Landau declared it a "missed opportunity" because of overproduction. (To be fair, the original reviews of the other two albums follow this same pattern, but I guess time has been even kinder to them; once again, don't look for logic in music criticism).

2 comments:

Richard said...

Really, you can't go wrong with any of the four albums you chose from. Madman Across the Water, Elton John, and Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player are all excellent as well. You could make the argument that no one was making better albums in the early 1970s than Elton John.

Uncle E said...

So I started off really happy when I saw the Tumbleweed cover; then I got a little miffed when I got to your point about it being the "rock snob's favorite; after you made your supporting arguments I started to come around, finding myself nodding to myself in agreement. Finally, when you stated your personal favorite EJ album was Capt. Fantastic an imaginary audience of people in my head stood up and applauded. These series of yours(Rock Solid/Bottom), in my opinion, have been a delight and accomplishes what I believe every good music blog should: it forces people to have a discussion, and in my case even reevaluate some of my personal choices. Well done! I remain a superfan!