The Emperor's Familiar Clothes
It occurs to me as I write this that, just shy of my 23rd birthday, I am not exactly what Elton John would, at this stage of his career, consider his target audience. I don’t frequent the soft-rock radio stations that John has faithfully obliged over the last two decades, and I can’t afford to drop a couple hundred bucks to witness him fail to hit the high notes during his latest retread of “Bennie and the Jets”.
But I hear things, and the word on the street is Sir Elton has recommitted himself to making solid records again. 2001’s Songs from the West Coast was easily the most inspired entry in his catalog since his truly dazzling early ‘70s run, a plot twist to his career that was no accident: The retro, expansive sound deliberately aped from those seminal LPs, and though the results weren’t as commercially successful as he might have hoped, it was simply good enough to hear new, well-crafted Elton John material.
For his latest effort, the agreeable Peachtree Road, John and his long-time collaborative team (guitarist Davey Johnstone, drummer Nigel Olsson, and lyricist Bernie Taupin) hunkered down in Atlanta, Georgia to record a countrified song cycle. But you’ll be disappointed if you expect this to be a return to the “authentic” country-rock of Tumbleweed Connection; it should more accurately be termed adult contemporary-country. All that separates these songs from the majority of his ‘90s output are some well-placed steel guitar flourishes and John’s vocals, which have adopted an inoffensive Southern twang. The result is an LP that sounds extremely workmanlike, but contains flashes of genuine inspiration and even soul; in other words, this all might be formulaic schlock, but it’s expertly played and produced schlock (the first time John has produced himself) by a master of the form, and he should be awarded some points for that.
As a lyricist, Taupin has always been awfully overrated—his misogynistic streak through the years has rightfully been called out by many critics—but he’s proven adept at fashioning his words to meet John’s mood at any given moment, and this year, his mood is reflective. Whereas Songs from the West Coast took a dour, world-weary view of love, Peachtree Road tends to be more realistic about it, capturing both the highs and lows, and most eloquently on the bluesy “My Elusive Drug”: “All the habits I couldn’t handle / I’ve swept them under the rug / In exchange for the sweetest addiction / You, my elusive drug.” A few tracks later, John adds, “The sun’s always setting on my life / And it’s sure getting dark in here.” These might not seem like the words of a man who’s loving life, but you know what they say about sad songs.
Despite a few gloomy moments, the album is mostly an upbeat one, notably on the state-of-his-career address “Weight of the World” and the obvious single “All That I’m Allowed,” where Elton proclaims that he’s thankful, so thankful, for what life’s given him. They’re others in a long line of saccharine Lion King-type ballads, but they’ve both got feel-good choruses that will no doubt unite the high rollers at John’s next Vegas concert. And if you like those, you’ll love the album’s closer, “I Can’t Keep This From You”, a near-perfect slice of gospel-pop that finds him testifying at the altar of unrequited, unconsummated love.
John’s production is crisp—maybe a little too crisp—and intriguingly, he often buries his piano deep in the mix to prominently feature Johnstone’s guitars. In keeping with the country guise, this strategy ultimately pays off, to loveliest effect on “Turn the Lights Out When You Leave”, his most successful attempt at a modern country song.
But all the pedal steel guitars and gospel choirs in the world can’t mask the reality that John has treaded these waters before. “Answer in the Sky”, with its Hallmark-caliber sentiment and schmaltzy arrangement that screams for Clay Aiken to cover it, begins with the pulsing beat of “Philadelphia Freedom”. Likewise, the chorus to “Freaks in Love” sounds like that of a slowed-down “Circle of Life”.
I’m willing to overlook most of the LP’s faults, but its lone, unmitigated disaster is “They Call Her the Cat”, a tune about a transvestite intended to be a rollicking update of “Honky Cat”, but instead comes off as a laughably corny exercise in raunch performed by lounge lizards. John employs the long-sterile horn section of Chicago, last heard in any productive role sometime around 1977, to spice things up, as well as a choir that actually starts meowing near the end, but it’s to no avail. Then there’s the innuendos of the chorus, as subtle as a Tim Rice soundtrack: “Now they call her the cat / And that’s a strong fact / They took a little of this / She got a little of that / Now Billy got a kitty, he got something to scratch / So they call her the cat.” It’s aberrations like this that make you understand why artists should rarely produce themselves.
I shouldn’t be so hard on Elton; Peachtree Road really is a pleasant album, filled with some very nice songs, and it does grow on you after a few spins. And so what if John has basically married himself to his songwriting formula by now, never to challenge us again? This album’s life-affirming messages and undeviating song structures are just what we need in these tumultuous times, when NBA players jump aimlessly into stands and naked housewives jump into athletes’ arms before games. So those of us in the peanut gallery should just keep our judgments to ourselves or move along. I elect to stick around: somebody’s got to keep pumping this stuff out for the masses, and hasn’t the guy who brought us “Tiny Dancer”, “Rocket Man”, and “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” earned that right?