Sunday, February 7, 2016

Album Review: Elton John - Wonderful Crazy Night

One of the things I respect as much as can be is when a veteran artist, who has no need to make new music anymore, continues to produce records because of an inner need to be creative. Maybe they aren't always great, and they will surely never capture the public's attention the way their earlier work did, but I love the idea of someone staying creative and writing songs because it's what they love to do. Despite not having a hit on the radio in ages, Elton John has never stopped making new albums. He had a down period on the 90s, but he came roaring back to life in the new millennium, stripping down his sound to find his muse again. Together, he and Bernie Taupin made a very good record in "Peachtree Road", and then topped it with what I consider the best Elton John record of them all; "The Captain And The Kid".

That record is one that I have listened to countless times, one that sits in my list of favorite albums. It'sa pure distillation of how when you strip away the facade of Elton John, there is massive talent underneath. The more mature approach Elton has taken was a welcome development, one that let his songs breathe on their own. Unfortunately, he took that approach to the extreme with "The Diving Board", a record that was so slow and turgid that it was rightly ignored.

"Wonderful Crazy Night" is a step back in the right direction, a celebration of the joy you can have playing music. It's a record that's intended to be upbeat, lively, and a good time. If that's the aim, it surely hits the mark.

The title track gets things off to a rollicking start, with a bouncing beat carried by the bass, and Elton's piano's and organs serving as support to the ruckus the band has kicked up. It's the most energetic number Elton has penned in several album cycles, and sounds remarkably fresh coming from a man who is nearly seventy. You can hear how much he's enjoying the process as "In The Name Of You" plays, with the kind of swagger you can't help but nod your head along with. The organ swells are lovely, and then the short guitar solo sounds exactly like it was played in 1975. But it's not nostalgic music, it's people from the old guard doing what they do best.

"Wonderful Crazy Night" is the warmest, most upbeat album Elton has made in God knows how long, and that shift in tone makes all the difference. While there are scatterings of horns and accordions, and even a bit of sinister country that pop up, there's nothing radical or new going on here. These songs are in line with the best of what Elton has been doing since dropping off of pop radio, but for the first time he sounds content to be making music that would have been hits back in the day. While he's spent the last few records making music that was always aimed at fulfilling some other creative need, this is a purely pop record that could rightly be called the mature evolution of his Rocket Man persona. Even if the songs aren't going to be recognized as hits anymore, he's still writing them, and sounding as confident in the material as ever.

"Blue Wonderful" is one of those songs that should be heralded as a modern classic. It has Elton's trademark melodies, wrapping around Bernie Taupin's words to form a perfect nugget of what pop music used to be. Not to disparage the past, but there's no reason to deny that this is as good, if not better, than a lot of the concert staples.

That feeling keeps creeping into my thoughts throughout the record. As songs like "I've Got 2 Wings", "A Good Heart", and "Guilty Pleasure" pass by, they're all beautifully melodic songs that I can't help but find myself swaying to in my chair. No, this isn't flamboyant in the way the backward-looking among us can't see past, but it can't be. That kind of music can't come from someone who isn't in the throws of raging youth, but this record is what that songwriter would have turned into with a few decades of life experience to draw from. These aren't songs based on and performed by characters and cliches, these are songs that cut closer to the bone.

When "Wonderful Crazy Night" is over, I find myself wanting to hit play again, to revisit these songs, because they do something I think is immensely important in music; they endear themselves. I get inundated with so much music that is made by miserable people, for miserable people, that sounds miserable, that hearing a record that reflects the unabashed joy music can create is cathartic beyond words. I'm not going to sit here and try to say that "Wonderful Crazy Night" is the second coming of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road", but I will say that it's a record that deserves far better than it will get. Elton isn't going to score any hits with this, but that only underscores the fickleness of the pop audience. This is a great record that can speak to a wide audience, if only their ears were open. "Wonderful Crazy Night" is indeed wonderful.

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