The impetus for the collaboration between Elton John and Leon Russell on The Union comes from a pure artistic place, one devoid of commercial considerations beyond making a few bucks for one of rock’s forgotten heroes. Unfortunately the creative execution results in a rather ponderous disc that’s ambition exceeds its reach. Despite an A-team of producer T-Bone Burnett and guest artists like Neil Young and Brian Wilson, The Union comes off feeling incomplete and half-baked. The genesis of the album was a brainstorm by John when he was vacationing in Africa and listening to Russell’s music. Befitting a star of John’s status, he simply called Russell on the phone and proposed they record together.
Russell’s place in the rock and pantheon was secured long ago and John has long considered him a major influence on his own work. He already was a member of Phil Spector’s studio band and a coveted session player, working with artists like the Rolling Stones, Jerry Lee Lewis and Frank Sinatra when John was just some guy from England who played piano. Russell wrote “Song for You”, “Superstar”, and “Delta Lady”, all of which became pop-rock standards in the ’70s. George Benson won a Grammy with his song “This Masquerade” and Russell was in heavy radio rotation throughout the decade despite his idiosyncratic voice and atypical look. In short, he was a highly unlikely star and eventually he fell off the pop music map and was relegated to the grind of constant touring and virtually no album sales. Battling health problems, Russell was at a dead-end when John revived his career.
All of which makes you really want to like this disc. Kicking off with the bouncy “If It Wasn’t for Bad Luck”, The Union instantly sounds like a long-lost relic from the ’70s. Russell’s rubbery voice and John’s strong backing vocals make this feel like something special. But the disc’s biggest flaw shows up immediately as John’s “Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes” runs the affair into a melodramatic ditch of overwrought balladry. While technically not a bad song, like so many of the cuts on The Union it’s a plodder that provides the ultimate litmus test for a listener: if you’re cool with windy piano-based slow songs with cliched titles like “There’s No Tomorrow”, “I Should Have Sent Roses” and “The Best Part of the Day”, then this is for you.
If not, then you’re going to be screaming for relief about half way through this affair. Equally difficult to grasp is the half-done feel of the songs that do lift off to a higher energy level. “Hey Ahab” and “Monkey Suit” both come across as gospel vamps that never really go anyplace and eventually become maddening in their repetitiveness and reliance on female backing vocals for some semblance of funk.
It feels blasphemous coming down so hard on a disc with such good intentions. Russell deserves the attention and he and John are touring to support the disc, which ought to get some money rolling in for the old icon. But given the hype — supposedly this is John’s return to his classic Tumbleweed Connection/Honky Chateau sound — and the star power, the bar should be high for these guys. Sadly, they can’t reach it.