Explore the discography of any longstanding pop music artist, and you’ll effortlessly spot their top-tier albums; likewise, you’ll be able to find their lowest points just as easily. However, what might not be as apparent are the forgotten minor classics that get lost in the middle.
Take, for example, Elton John. It used to be almost universally acknowledged that his 1973 epic, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, was the superlative entry in his extensive catalog. That isn’t always the case these days, though; Goodbye still ranks highly, yes, but an earlier masterpiece—1970’s Tumbleweed Connection—ranks higher on some lists. Even 1975’s autobiographical Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy gets the nod as his greatest work from time to time, while 1972’s Honky Chateau and 1973’s Don’t Shoot Me I’m Just the Piano Player have their partisans as well.
There are the dark horses, too, such as 1976’s noirish double record, Blue Moves. Despite being considered a commercial and critical setback at the time, author Matthew Restall convincingly argued for a reconsideration of its merit in his 33 1/3 book from last year.
As for the overtly bad Elton John LPs, well, everyone seems to agree that 1979’s Victim of Love is by far the worst; yet, it hardly seems fair to single out that anomalous disco excursion (especially since John did nothing more than sing on it). Honestly, collections like ’85’s Ice on Fire or ‘86’s Leather Jackets—on which he exerted more effort writing songs and playing piano—are nearly as bad as Victim of Love.
Amid all this speculation, a few Elton John albums appear to have been largely forgotten, such as The Fox, which came out 40 years ago this week. It’s nothing less than a lost gem among the 30-plus studio sequences he’s released.
To be clear, the world wasn’t exactly on edge with anticipation for a new Elton John album back in May 1981. After spending 1970 – 1975 becoming the biggest rock star on planet Earth, he spent the next five years trying to figure out what to do next. Blue Moves yielded a huge hit, “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”, but fans seemed confused by the album as a whole. 1977 was the first year in almost a decade in which John did not release a new record, and 1978’s A Single Man came and went mostly unheralded (though it did contain “Song for Guy”, a hit single outside the United States).
He did have one more Billboard Top 10 hit in the 1970s—1979’s “Mama Can’t Buy You Love”, which was a collaboration with legendary Philly soul producer/arranger/songwriter Thom Bell—before Victim of Love landed with a thud on the disco floor later that year. In response, he attempted a course correction with 21 at 33 in May 1980, its biggest hit being a bland adult contemporary ballad called “Little Jeannie” that paved the way for more bland AC hits to come. As a whole, however, 21 at 33 failed to set to the charts aflame.
Released almost exactly a year after 21 at 33, The Fox wasn’t a breakout hit either, peaking at only #21 on the Billboard 200. Song for song, though, The Fox emerges decades later as a better and quirkier album than its immediate predecessor; it can also be seen as a transitional step toward John’s commercial revival a few albums later.
On the surface, The Fox is a modest affair that didn’t call much attention to itself. However, give the record a few more spins and its warm eclectic nature reveals itself. The tracks—which include co-writes with longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, as well as Gary Osborne, Tom Robinson, and James Newtown-Howard—cover an array of genres (ranging from the orchestral instrumental “Carla/Etude” to the electronic pop of “Nobody Wins”).
“Breaking Down Barriers” opens The Fox with a bang. It’s an engaging, piano-based rocker with subtle hints of the ‘70s Philly soul sound John previously incorporated into “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Mama Can’t Buy You Love”. The hopeful lyrics, written by Osborne, present an Elton who is ready to break down the walls he’d created in his life and move forward.
Things go sour quickly, though, with a second Osborne collaboration, “Heart in the Right Place” (a venomous first-person narrative about a gossip columnist that’s accompanied by appropriately snarling music). Luckily, the nastiness is immediately counterbalanced by “Just Like Belgium”, a breezy travelogue co-written with Taupin. It’s a catchy pop tune with wistful lyrics about memory and travel. While the song was released as a single in several European countries and the Philippines, New Zealand, and Australia, it failed to chart anywhere.
And so it goes.