Elton John - The Diving Board
Record Label: Capitol
Release Date: Sept. 24, 2013
After muddling through the 80s (Reg Strikes Back and Sleeping with the Past excluded) and dipping even further in the 90s (save for The One and Made in England), Elton John returned to his iconic ways with something of a career resurgence. His 2001 album Songs From the West Coast snagged some of the best press in nearly 19 years and even had a song ("I Want Love") that charted quite well, too. The album also achieved something far more important, it returned John to his piano-based roots.
Three years later, he kept the winning strike alive with the criminally overlooked Peachtree Road, an admitted commercial flop but an equally compelling outing. Two years beyond that came the tremendous The Captain & The Kid, a critical darling that unfortunately became another commercial flop. Though its lone single ("The Bridge") never made much impact at radio, the album was in many ways an important step in John's illustrious career. Ostensibly a sequel album to John's seminal classic Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy, the album served as much as a retrospective as it did a lantern for modern times.
Never one to sit still, Sir Elton carried forward with The Union, a towering duet album with Leon Russell, produced by none other than 12-time Grammy winner T-Bone Burnett, and an electro-pop effort entitled Good Morning to the Night (recorded with the Australian dance duo Pnau), which sold like hot cakes in Britain yet barely made a whisper here in the States. And so now, just two years removed from the Pnau album and three years removed from the Russell album, Reg is back at it once again, with The Diving Board, his first solo album in seven years.
Working once again with Burnett, he has once again stuck to his piano-based ways, but this time, he's gone even further into the vault. Utilizing the drum-bass-piano format that dotted most of his chart-topping albums from the 70s. In titling the album The Diving Board, the British crooner has gone on record as admitting that creating this album, his 30th, was in many ways an effort to step inside himself and channel the ubiquitous chart-topper the world has come to love. He has stated that it is both "the easiest record to make," and "the most piano driven album I've ever released."
While The Diving Board is only the second album since 1979's Victim of Love to not feature any of his regular band members, it is without a doubt as strong as anything he has released since Reg Strikes Back, if not longer. Lead single "Home Again" is a tender ballad that is both big-hearted and full-bodied. John's burly voice is controlled and confident and the tender song about fatherhood is as touching as anything he's written in quite some time. Though it is probably one of only a few singles on the disc, that is not to say that the album lacks any punch.
Whether its the honky-tonk doo-wop of the frolicking "A Town Called Jubilee" or the transcendent and driving "Oscar Wilde Gets Out," the disc starts off tremendously. In fact "Oscar Wilde" is one of John's best songs in quite some time. Those who prefer just John and his piano will find the war veteran ballad "Oceans Away," a welcome tonic, as well as any of the three piano interludes that dot the landscape of the album. While they do at times feel superfluous, the interludes prove that John is still a superior piano player and even now at 66, has not lost a step at all. The first half of The Diving Board closes with the triumvirate of "The Ballad of Big Tom," "My Quicksand" and "Can't Stay Alone Tonight."
The former is a piano-rich bopper with zest and swerve, while "My Quicksand" is a pensive and probing ballad that features just John and his piano. Towards the latter stages, brushes enter the picture and the entire thing feels lounge jazzy and utterly delightful. Much like "Oceans Away" it is John at his most bare-bones and arguably, his most brilliant. Arguably the weakest of the three is "Can't Stay Alone Tonight," a mid-tempo meditation on co-dependency that probably is the first effort of The Diving Board that feels the most like filler. That being written, the song could stand up well against many of the other filler efforts from anything in his 80s and 90s canon.
Side B of The Diving Board opens with "Voyeur," a spartan and delicate effort that is equal parts mature, reflective and melodic. Much like "My Quicksand" and "Oceans Away" it is another composition of just John and piano, but this one seems to dig a little deeper and yearn for something more. Arguably one of the best on the disc is the gospel-laden "Take This Dirty Water," a sturdy and headstrong effort that just begs for repeated listens. The cinematic and chilly "The New Fever Waltz" glides across the speakers with an airy calm that is equal parts celestial, ruminative and nocturnal.
It's hard to admonish John for being superfluous but "The New Fever Waltz" does feel a bit tacked on. On the contrary, the teetering and kinetic "Mexican Vacation" is an absolute home-run and John at his absolute best. The LP closes with the title track, a cautious warning to those who place celebrity and fame above all else. Languid and horn-laden it has an easy strut to it that makes one want to tip back a drink and press repeat. The song's genius though is the lyrics and its deep sense of caution from someone who has truly swam through a sea of difficult currents. That very fact is why this album is so deeply important.
In preparing for the album, John went on record as saying that this was the most exciting solo record he has done in an extremely long time and that excitement is most certainly merited. Not only is The Diving Board, Elton's best album in quite some time, it may be on of his best albums ever. Though it lacks a strong sense of commercial appeal, its merits and charms are endless. Whereas many artists throw in the towel and give up, churning out halfhearted filler-filled mistakes, Elton always strived for better. That persistence and determination is why The Diving Board is so spellbinding. Laden with poignant and intimate narratives that recall his platinum-selling Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across the Water, the disc is spacious, airy and utterly simple, and subsequently, a tour-de-force. Inspired by James Blake, Lorde and John Grant, The Diving Board proves that Sir Elton has once again raised the bar. Even now, at 66, having played over 3,000 shows, sold more than 300 million records, and having recorded the best-selling single ever ("Candle in the Wind"), John is still going strong and better than ever. A few listens to The Diving Board proves exactly that.
I really think people forget how talented this guy is... his cotroversy over shadows his great work.
I'm mostly saddened that on a music site with such a vast audience like AP.net, an artist of his caliber is practically ignored. I guess first-rate musicianship isn't that important anymore. Strange days.