Elton John Songs from the West Coast

Elton John’s ‘Songs From the West Coast’ at 20 Years Old

Elton John revisited his past to record the acclaimed Songs from the West Coast in 2001. The album began a late-career revival that continues to this day.

Songs from the West Coast
Elton John
Universal Records
1 October 2001

Several years ago, the Arizona Republic tasked me with compiling a list of 20 essential Elton John albums. When I finished, John’s 26th studio LP, Songs From the West Coast (released at the start of October 2001), found itself in the #10 spot. It was placed between The Diving Board (2013) at #11 and The Captain and the Kid (2006) at #9, and here is what I wrote:

“Ryan Adams inspired John “to do better” and the result was Songs From the West Coast, a return to form that picks up way back where Too Low for Zero left off back in 1983. John’s musical revival is evident from the opening notes of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. But the whole album is a strong effort with songs such as “Look Ma, No Hands” and “Birds”, featuring a stripped-down sound and production style harkening back to John’s earliest work. Master arranger Paul Buckmaster, who worked on John’s earliest collections, returns to perform his magic, particularly on “Ballad of the Boy in the Red Shoes”.

As its 20th anniversary was approaching, I immersed myself in Songs From the West Coast and can now confidently state that if I redid my Top 20 list, I would bump the LP up at least two notches (if not higher). I’d also change my notes to read “…that picks up way back where Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy left off in 1975″. 

Songs From the West Coast is just that good. The combination of an excellent set of Elton John/Bernie Taupin compositions with a series of smart production and arrangement choices led to a superb statement. Furthermore, the sequence now serves as the link between John’s glory years (1970 -1975) and the last two decades, during which he’s released a series of fine records that hearken back to his classic era without being beholden to it. 

The way John tells the tale in his memoir, Me (2019), the road to Songs From the West Coast began with an agitated conversation in the south of France sometime in 2000. Despite John’s reputation for having a tantrum now and then, he wasn’t the only annoyed person. Fascinatingly, lyricist Taupin was too; in fact, he flew from his home in the US to complain about the duo’s most recent album, The Big Picture (1997). 

“He hated everything about it,” writes John of Taupin. “The songs, his lyrics, the production, the fact that we’d recorded it in England, and he had to travel from the US for the sessions.” In the book, John (who cites 1986’s Leather Jackets as his worst work) notes that he disagreed with Taupin. I am on Team Elton in this debate. Despite the presence of one or two decent selections, Leather Jackets is an awful Elton John release, and its 35th anniversary—also this month—will go uncelebrated. Sorry, Leather Jackets.

Unlike Leather Jackets, The Big Picture was commercially successful. Sales may have been bolstered by the sad fact that its first single, “Something About the Way You Look Tonight“, was paired with John’s tribute to the recently deceased Princess Diana. “Candle in the Wind 1997″/”Something About the Way You Look Tonight” became the biggest selling single of all time, which had to have at least indirectly boosted sales of The Big Picture

Despite the success of The Big Picture, Taupin raises valid points about the record. The tracks are not terrible, although Taupin’s lyrics are vague and nondescript. Likewise, John’s melodies suffice, yet most of the contents are stuck in a mid-tempo adult contemporary mode. Finally, the production of The Big Picture is mushy and indistinct. In short, nothing about The Big Picture draws a listener in and encourages them to stay for the whole thing.

Taupin’s arguments convinced John, and they agreed to try a back-to-basics approach with upcoming records. Recognizing that his time as a hit single maker was drawing to a close—”Candle in the Wind 1997″ notwithstanding—John decided to begin to record music that he loved (regardless of their chart potential). Songs From the West Coast, created in Los Angeles and on analog tape rather than digitally, was John’s first collection with this new mindset.

Comparing the first minute of the opening tracks of Elton John’s 1997 and 2001 albums is all you need to do to spot the difference. The Big Picture opens with “Long Way from Happiness”, wherein a whirring electronic keyboard fades in before the vocal begins about 27 seconds into the song. The first lines John sings are “I guess you’re okay / You seem to feel better these days”, and while the track is eventually enlivened by some piano soloing, it’s overall a surprisingly energy-free way to open an LP. I am a major Elton John fan, but I’ve rarely if ever, listened to The Big Picture from beginning to end. Choosing “Long Way from Happiness” as the opening track explains why I’ve hardly ever followed through to closer “Wicked Dreams” (which has an extra bit of vitality that much of The Big Picture lacks). 

Meanwhile, Songs From the West Coast opens with the provocatively titled “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. The first thing you hear is an acoustic piano introduction, followed by Elton singing (just 14 seconds in). “We bet on our lives, and we bet on the horses / In that upstairs apartment / On Orlando and 4th.” The analog production is warm and inviting as Taupin’s detail-rich story unfolds. 

Any doubts about John’s intentions disappear 45 seconds into the track. As he sings, “And the tears never came / They just stayed in our eyes”, the underlying piano line and backing vocals strongly echo those of “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” from Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. This attribute is no mere trading in on past glories, though. “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, as with the rest of Songs From the West Coast, is about rediscovering the past to understand the present and move into the future. 

John’s vocal ends with a softly-murmured but emphatic “yeah” that speaks volumes about his confidence in how the album is about to unfold. That confidence is well-founded, as follow-up “Dark Diamond” features clavinet and harmonica by Stevie Wonder. Then, “Look Ma, No Hands” continues to provide the past-as-present context via melodies that may not be John’s most obvious earworms, but they nevertheless stick and keep the listener engaged.

The sequence persists eclectically, ranging from somber songs (such as “American Triangle”, a stark reflection on the murder of Matthew Shepherd) to bluesy rockers (such as “The Wasteland”, which namechecks Robert Johnson) and more. Pop-oriented gem “Love Her Like Me” might seem like filler at first, but it becomes more substantial with each new listen. Lyrically, Taupin is on fire, so much so that Songs From the West Coast might be his third-best studio collaboration with Elton John (behind only Tumbleweed Connection and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy). 

The inclusions on Songs From the West Coast are consistently good. Even those that lean toward John’s adult contemporary mode (“Original Sin”, “Mansfield”) are saved by the spare production that keeps the emphasis on voice and piano, not electronics. That said, a few tunes merit special attention. For instance, “Birds” is an idiosyncratic country-rock tune with philosophical lyrics that have John musing, “And everywhere I look there’s something to learn” and contemplating why birds “always look for a quiet place to hide”. The track has emerged as one of my favorite Elton songs from any period in his career. 

Ballad of the Boy in the Red Shoes” presents a heartbreaking story about a former ballet dancer who is dying of an AIDS-related illness. The song effectively mixes the narrator’s memories with criticism of President Ronald Reagan—never mentioned by name—for his delayed response to the ’80s AIDS crisis. Musically, it’s highlighted by Paul Buckmaster’s orchestration, which is reminiscent of his work on early John albums like Madman Across the Water

The Lennon-esque ballad “I Want Love” appears halfway through the set, and it’s the emotional core of Songs From the West Coast. In Me, John notes that the piece “was a song Bernie wrote about himself, a middle-aged man with a few failed marriages behind him, wondering if he’ll ever fall in love again”. Of course, with John singing, “I Want Love” begins to reflect his life experience, too. The sheer Lennon-ness of it (complete with a guitar solo that feels like John’s bandmate, George Harrison) makes you wonder if Taupin’s lyrics reminded John of a conversation he might have had with his long-ago Beatle friend.

And then there’s the “I Want Love” music video, in which actor Robert Downey Jr. (who’d recently recovered from his own drug issues) lip-syncs the song while wandering in a continuous take through the empty Greystone Mansion in Los Angeles. Soulful country singer Chris Stapleton recorded a version for the 2018 country-tinged John/Taupin tribute album, Revamp & Restoration. Finally, with slightly altered lyrics, the song was sung by each of John’s dysfunctional childhood home residents in the 2019 biopic, Rocketman.

As all this metadata begins to accumulate, “I Want Love” appears to be moving toward the status of being one of those pieces that express universal pain so simply that the song no longer belongs to the artist (see also “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M.). 

Songs From the West Coast closes with “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore”, with lyrics that poignantly come to grips with aging. Following the lead of Downey in the “I Want Love” video, Justin Timberlake plays a young Elton in the evocative clip for this song. “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore” was later covered beautifully by Rosanne Cash and Emmylou Harris, and it can be found, along with Stapleton’s “I Want Love”, on Revamp & Restoration

If Elton John had retired after the release of Songs from the West Coast, “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore” would have served as a fitting capstone to his career. Instead, Songs from the West Coast has served as a template for a later-period revival. While none of these releases have sold in Elton-in-the-1970s numbers, the albums below have directly resulted in John following his muse rather than the charts. Each has music worth hearing:

  • Peachtree Road (2004). John’s first self-produced effort has a rootsy vibe to it and features a flat-out classic country tune, “Turn the Lights Out When You Leave”.
  • The Captain and the Kid (2006). A sequel to the autobiographical Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. The Captain and the Kid doesn’t quite hit the heights of that classic album, but it comes within striking distance. 
  • The Union (with Leon Russell) (2010). A reconnection with early mentor Leon Russell lead to this act of friendship, which yielded some cool tunes and revitalized the last few years of Russell’s life.
  • The Diving Board (2013). Of all the 21st century E.J. sets, The Diving Board is the toughest to find your way into, thanks to its dense, complex songs and somber tone. But if you can find your way in, it’s a fascinating trip. 
  • Wonderful Crazy Nights (2016). Maybe as a reaction to The Diving Board, Wonderful Crazy Nights is purposefully lightweight , containing several tunes that are as close as John has gotten in decades to recreating the ultra-catchy feel of his upbeat hits like “Crocodile Rock” and “I’m Still Standing”, 

John’s new LP, The Lockdown Sessions, is set to be released on 22 October. A compilation of collaborations recorded with everyone from Lil Nas X to Eddie Vedder during the COVID-19 pandemic, The Lockdown Sessions promises an atypical Elton John collection. Even so, both John and Taupin have acknowledged that John has a fresh set of lyrics from Bernie, so we may eventually see a new addition to their 21st-century collection.

Thanks to the ongoing inspiration that Songs From the West Coast has provided the songwriting team, that future album should be well worth hearing. 

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