Released on 22 October 1976, Elton John‘s Blue Moves is a double album, full of pathos and despair. Though briefly buoyed by one major hit single – “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” – Blue Moves marked the end of John’s enormous 1970s pop music dominance. Now, 45 years to that day, John is releasing The Lockdown Sessions, an album that is about as far removed from Blue Moves, in every way possible, as you can imagine. The Lockdown Sessions is an upbeat collection that reflects Elton John’s ongoing interest in all forms of pop music, past and present.
Elton John didn’t spend the COVID-19 lockdown complaining and writing faux blues songs about masks and vaccines, unlike some of his contemporaries. Instead, after an initial period of inactivity, John launched into a series of one-off collaborations, often with artists decades younger than him. Gradually, he had an album on his hands. Now is as good a place as any to place this very important caveat: if you are looking for anything resembling a traditional Elton John album, you are not going to find it here. This is no Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but that’s OK: we already have that album. Happily, though, The Lockdown Sessions is also no Leather Jackets, perhaps the nadir of John’s career.
To better understand The Lockdown Sessions, it might be helpful to remember this foundational rule of improvisational comedy: when presented with a scenario, say “Yes, and…”, no matter how absurd the situation. And then, just run with it. If The Lockdown Sessions was an improv bit, this is how it might go:
“The new Elton John album is a compilation of collaborative recordings he made during the COVID-19 lockdown.”
“Yes, and the opening track is a duet dance tune with Dua Lipa, in which Elton and Dua trade cut-and-paste lyrics from different Elton classics – “Sacrifice”, “Rocket Man”, “Kiss the Bride”, with a sample of “Where’s the Shoorah” – that have nothing to do with each other. This song, ‘Cold Heart’ has ushered Elton back onto the singles charts for the first time in decades.”
“Yes, and second track, ‘Always Love You’, will find Elton singing some heartfelt ballad-y lyrics, interspersed with explicit raps from Young Thug and Nikki Minaj.”
“Yes, and after accompanying Miley Cyrus on a Metallica tune (that also features Yo-Yo Ma, because, of course, it does), Elton is going to continue on his merry way, duetting with the likes of Eddie Vedder and the Stevies [Nicks and Wonder], before finishing up with the late Glen Campbell on the moving ‘I’m Not Gonna Miss You’.”
“Yes, and ultimately this is all makes for a weirdly fun Elton John album.”
To be clear: Elton John has never made an album quite like The Lockdown Sessions, though he did release a mostly-forgotten Duets collection in 1993. In fact, since 2001’s Songs from the West Coast, John has deliberately looked back to move forward, recording a series of albums that hearkened back to his ’70s work without being overly beholden to it.
Unlike those albums, it’s a bit difficult to get an initial handle on The Lockdown Sessions. The first few times you listen, the album can feel like Elton John invaded the latest Now That’s What I Call Music collection and managed to get himself on every track in one way or another. Gradually though, the songs sink in, and you realize they’re primarily pretty good-to-great. Then suddenly, the juxtaposition of a Lil Nas X collab (“One of Me”, also on the Montero album) with an Eddie Vedder rocker makes perfect sense, at least within the Lockdown context.
Much of The Lockdown Sessions is pure 21st-century pop, spiked with John’s vocals and piano playing. “Learn to Fly” is a breezy tune by Surfaces, while “Chosen Family” is a dramatic plea for inclusion by John and Japanese singer Rina Sawayama. There’s also much drama to be found on John’s cover of the Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s a Sin”, performed with Years & Years (aka Olly Alexander, the star of the British television series also called It’s a Sin).
During the home stretch of the album, John does bring some older artists to the party. “E-Ticket”, the John/Vedder duet, is a charging rocker that gives John an opportunity to play piano like he was doing in 1971. “Finish Line”, meanwhile, allows John to finally sing a song with Stevie Wonder, who has previously played harmonica on “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” and “Dark Diamond”. “Finish Line” is a gorgeous love song with strong vocals by both singers abetted by a full gospel choir. Speaking of Stevies, is that Stevie Nicks showing up to sing “Stolen Car” with EJ? Why sure it is!
Aside from Elton John’s willingness to step out of his comfort zone, much of the credit for the success of The Lockdown Sessions ought to go to Andrew Watt, the producer who initially approached John about the Metallica tune. Watt went on to produce much of the album, and it might just be his work that provides the glue holding everything together.
John has admitted that he is in possession of a set of “fantastic new lyrics from Bernie” Taupin, so somewhere down the line, we’re likely to hear another more classic-style Elton John album. For the time being though, we can be thankful that Elton said, “Yes, and…”. The Lockdown Sessions is an engaging series of snapshots of time well-spent.