(45) Songs from the West Coast (2001) ****
Finally, a new Elton John studio album! Finally, a new producer – Patrick Leonard instead of standard Chris Thomas, who’d been around for 20 years, way too long. Released on September 11, 2001. I actually bought it at the West Coast, at Tower Records in Hollywood, where Elton lived at the time. No doubt this is his best album in 25 years – since Blue Moves, I’d say. (Others might say since Too Low For Zero, which is just as acceptable.) 16 years later, this verdict still holds up, only The Diving Board surpassing it. Songs from the West Coast is much more than a solid, professional effort like Made in England or The One, and it’s neither an imitation of his 70’s sound and style as many reviewers claimed, but a mature and diverse collection of songs by John and Taupin in their mid-fifties. Only in the latter part, one or two songs could have been left as b-sides.
Standout tracks: Dark Diamond, Birds, The Wasteland, Original Sin.
(46) Peachtree Road (2004) ***
Peachtree Road continues where Songs from the West Coast ended – just more respectable, and therefore slightly boring. Elton produced the album himself, which may not have been the best decision. Some fairly good songs, though this time with a few more references to earlier hits and albums. Some of the lesser songs play like they were made for „Wetten dass…?“, though, and the first half is much stronger than the second one, with the overall atmosphere and sound becoming too uniform.
Standout: Porch Swing in Tupelo.
(47) Billy Elliot – musical cast recording (2005) *½
Another musical, this time an immensely successful one based on the successful British film. This time it’s a cast recording instead of an all-star album. Does anyone care? I guess not.
(48) The Captain & the Kid (2006) ***¾
Conceived as a follow-up to Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, a kind-of autobiography, telling the story of Elton’s and Bernie friendship since that previous album. A mature collection of songs, not overly fantastic, but very good. A nice piano album recreating „the old sound“ of the seventies.
Standout tracks: The Captain and the Kid, And the House fell down, The Bridge (finally, a solo piano song).
(49) Lestat (2006)
Lestat is another Broadway musical, the first one by Elton and Bernie, based on Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. A cast recording was reported to be finished, produced by Guy Babylon (who played in Elton’s band from 1988 until his untimely death in 2009) and Matt Still (who co-produced The Captain & the Kid). After the show’s closing however, EJ’s management stated „there are no plans to release the recording at the present.“ Since I have not seen the show on Broadway, I have never heard the music and therefore can’t give any opinion about it.
(50) The Union (Elton John and Leon Russell, 2010) ****
Leon Russell had been Elton’s idol and influence on the late 1960s and early ’70s, but when Elton noticed Russell and his songs had been forgotten about, he initiated a collaboration album, produced by T Bone Burnett. They composed and recorded 16 new songs, backed by a committed band that includes Marc Ribot and Booker T, among others. Neil Young and Brain Wilson came around to sing on a song each, and Cameron Crowe made a documentary about the recordings.
The Union continues the retrospective line of The Captain & the Kid. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable album with strong performances, sounding very down-to-earth, thanks to Burnett. However, not all of the 16 songs are equally captivating, in particular the second half drags on a bit. (The standard version is 63 minutes, and the deluxe edition is almost 72 minutes, with 16 songs.)
Standout tracks: If it wasn’t for bad, Hey Ahab, Gone to Shiloh (with Neil Young), There’s no tomorrow.
(51) Gnomeo and Juliet (2011)
I don’t really know what that is. Never heard it. I believe it’s a mix of (mostly) old and (a couple of) new songs for another animated movie.
(52) Good Morning to the Night (Pnau feat. Elton John) **½
Provided with 100% creative freedom, Australian dance pop duo Pnau were invited to produce mash-ups from Elton’s recordings of the 70s. As a matter of fact, the results could have been less respectful, but they sound nice, evoking a very 70s disco feeling. It’s not really good. But it’s also not that bad either. It’s what it is.
(53) The Diving Board (2013) ****½
The Diving Board was announced as – at last! – the album to feature only Elton and his piano. Unfortunately, the final album (the release was postponed after its first announcement and re-recordings were executed) is mostly a full band album, save for the opening song and some other sections throughout the 15 tracks, including and two short instrumentals. However, producer T Bone Burnett has helped arrange the songs and a third instrumental in a cautious and unpretentious way; the piano is always in focus of the songs, and 2 cellos, bass (Raphael Saadiq), drums, and, on a few occasions, a choir or a horn section, have usually been mixed in a supportive manner.
It’s furthermore notable that there are no pop songs intended to stand out, no hits, with the album having been conceived as a mature late work, in parts melancholic, in parts joyful, with the odd wink to the past (Can’t stay alone tonight strongly references I guess that’s why they call it the Blues). An arresting album of immensely inspired songwriting. The closing title track is arguably one of Elton’s best compositions ever.
Standout tracks: The Diving Board, Ocean’s Away, The Ballad of Blind Tom, Oscar Wilde gets out.
(54) Wonderful Crazy Night (2016) ***
Another T Bone Burnett production. Unfortunately, after The Diving Board, this is a disappointment. After three rather somber and introspective studio albums, Wonderful Crazy Night was announced as a return to the colorful and extrovert sound and performance of the 1970’s albums, which is why it’s the first album with the usual live band since The Captain & the Kid. A pity there are hardly any memorable songs on this one. Painting by numbers. And the cover art is just awful and as tasteless as it could possibly get.
Standout songs: The Open Chord, In the Name of you, I’ve got two Wings.
(55) Deep Cuts (2016/2017) ****/*****
So, after you have read through all of this, here is something else I prepared for you: A year ago, around the release of Wonderful Crazy Night, Elton created a Spotify playlist with 20 „Deep Cuts“, i.e. non-hits from his back catalogue:
It’s a nice and interesting selection, of which I made a playlist of for my iTunes. Having taken a look at it again after I finished this 5-part blog entry, I am not surprised to see several of my „standout track“ choices in this list (My Father’s Gun, Have Mercy on the Criminal, Amoreena, Razor Face, The King must die, even the very unusual choice Too Low for Zero in addition to Crystal, about both of which I assume none of you co-manafonistas would like). I am rather surprised about the inclusion of a few not-great tracks, such as Leather Jackets, Live Like Horses, Shoot down the Moon and Restless. For all those among you who would like to listen to the 20-track collection, I’ve put the iTunes playlist into my Dropbox for you to download. You’ll find a link in the comments. [Non-commercial offer, for private use.]
But, as I don’t really agree with this selection (I think it is, in parts, a missed opportunity) and would like to present a much better one, I have created my very own Deep Cuts collection for you, as a 70th birthday present. I don’t assume you’ll like all of those songs, but I can promise you that anyone with open ears and a love for accomplished songwriting and arrangements will find more some of these choices worth listening to – and will hopefully enjoy as much as possible in this playlist. I’d make a bet that everyone of you will find surprising things in there. Even though it was tough, I forced myself to keep the playlist run under two hours. The first half is more straightforward, whereas the latter part includes a few peculiar choices. I’ll add a download link to this selection as well. Enjoy! (NB: Only two or three of my selected songs overlap with Sir Elton’s own Deep Cuts playlist.)
I just found a readers‘ poll in Rolling Stone (from 2015) which offers ten „deep cuts“ and adds some interesting background information about several of the songs in these two playlists.
previously: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4