Elton John / Leon Russell
John Metzger's #1 album for 2010
First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2011, Volume 18, #1
Written by John Metzger
Mon January 10, 2011, 06:30 AM CST
Elton John was never bashful about his strong affinity for Leon Russellís work. As his popularity soared, however, John increasingly strayed from his roots, chasing his pop-star dreams down the rabbit hole until there was little left of his artistic ambitions. Over the past decade, however, John has been clawing his way back, fighting for the kind of respect that once came so freely. With his 2006 endeavor The Captain & The Kid, he achieved his goal by teaming with his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin to construct an overdue sequel to Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, an outing he had issued 31 years earlier. Constructed in collaboration with producer T Bone Burnett and Johnís idol Leon Russell, The Union effectively turns its predecessor into a warm-up act.
Russell, of course, played an instrumental role in shaping early efforts by Delaney & Bonnie. He also served as the ringleader of Joe Cockerís backing band during the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. Russell parlayed these high-profile collaborations into a successful recording career of his own, but as the 1970s drew to a close, he slowly drifted into obscurity, his disappearance fueled by a series of flawed business decisions. Unquestionably, then, The Union is a labor of love. Nevertheless, Johnís decision to rescue his old pal with whom he toured briefly in 1970 has the odd effect of also saving himself.
If anyone has lingering doubts about how much of an influence Russell had on Johnís initial forays, they will be erased completely by If It Wasnít for Bad, the first song on The Union. Driven by its piano-pounding rhythm and with its pop-oriented chorus wrapped in a gospel-blues melody, the tune leans heavily upon the distinctive voicing that Russell established long ago. However, it just as easily could have fit into the framework of Johnís first few recordings.
Sure enough, as The Union progresses, it eradicates all of the superfluous embellishments that John has applied to his work over the years. Organic and roots-oriented, the songs circle around the strains of gospel, blues, soul, and country music that Russell had fused together so beautifully and vibrantly. This is the same template that John essentially swiped for his own purposes. Consequently, The Union reveals the constructs of Johnís own recordings, namely Honky Chateau, Tumbleweed Connection, and his self-titled set from 1970.
Not surprisingly, given the marketing potential of The Union, several high-profile artists were brought on board to augment the proceedings. Neil Young bends his ghostly voice around Gone to Shilohís epic Civil War narrative, while Brian Wilson leant a choral arrangement to When Love Is Dying. Elsewhere, Robert Randolph adds an ominous blast of Doors-ian guitar to The Best Part of the Day, and organist Booker T. Jones subtly gives several tracks a warm, spiritual glow.
In the end, though, the guests matter little. The Union unquestionably is Johnís and Russellís show. A sense of urgency permeates every track on the affair, and at times, as they tell their tales of heartache, they seem to be conversing with each other. Occasionally ó as in the case of Johnís Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes ó they are. The meanings of other songs, though, are altered by their context within the affair. When, for example, John and Russell trade lyrics on When Love Is Dying, they might as well be singing about their relationship to the music business. This is the magic of The Union. It doesnít matter who wrote the songs or, for that matter, who sang them. John and Russell share equal billing, and The Union lives up to its promise of being a full-fledged collaborative partnership.
Of Further Interest...
The Union is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2011 The Music Box