There’s a moment at the very beginning of The Captain & The Kid when it seems as if, against all reasonable expectations, the album might actually be exactly what it purports to be: a successful evocation of Elton John’s glory days of the early-to-mid 1970s. There’s a 40-second piano part at the beginning of “Postcards From Richard Nixon” that brings to mind some of John’s best keyboard work — a combination of classical fills and barroom brio, the unique emphasis on alternating notes in a rhythmical manner that marks his distinctive piano playing as clearly as any other instrumental stylist of the rock era. The problem is that the piano work soon gives way to a song, and unfortunately the songs on The Captain & The Kid stand in the way of the John and lyricist Bernie Taupin’s best intentions.
Above and beyond the Disney movies and Broadway musicals and charity balls and Vegas residencies and serenading dead royalty, Elton John and Bernie Taupin were once the foremost songwriting duo in pop music. Their only real peers were Lennon & McCartney and Jagger & Richards, and I’d probably disqualify Lennon & McCartney based on how many of their best songs were written independently of one another. That’s a pretty enviable achievement for anyone, and I’d put their early ’70s string of hits alongside anyone else’s. They would not be found wanting from the comparison.
But only a fool would purposefully invite comparisons with themselves at 30-years remove. Perhaps in other fields of endeavor it might be plausible — writers and classical composers tend to improve with age, like fine wine — but pop musicians and dancers, as a rule, tend to diminish with the passing of time. There are always exceptions to be found, but there are very few popular musicians who have been around for multiple decades who can boast of still producing work as good or better as that of their early years. For every Neil Young and Bob Dylan there are dozens of Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney’s and Stevie Wonders and David Bowies… and even Neil Young’s mid-career peak seems to have given way to flabby sentimentalism. Elton John has fallen as far as any of these artists — as someone who once owned a copy of Leather Jackets, I would argue that his valleys were probably as low or lower than any of his peers — but moreso than most of his peers he has also become keenly aware of just how far recent material had fallen from the heights of his heyday. Beginning with 2001’s Songs From the West Coast, John has made a concerted effort to reestablish his relevance. As with similar recent attempts made by the Stones and Bowie there were strong moments that seemed to echo his early peaks, but also an overall lack of inspiration that simply couldn’t be covered by a sheen of measured professionalism.
Listening to The Captain & The Kid, the performers’ professional composure never flags. But in seeking to replicate the effect of their classic 1975 album Captain Fantastic & the Brown Dirt Cowboy, John and Taupin have only succeeded in shining a spotlight on their own inadequacies. It sounds harsh, I know, but an album like The Captain & The Kid inspires a great deal of frustration on the part of a long-time fan. It’s obvious they want to recapture what once came so easily to them, it’s obvious they’re hungry for the energy and motivation that once came so easily, but wishing for something and having it be so are two different things. Perhaps if the album had come without the expectations of being a sequel to one of their finest achievements it would have been easier to be accommodating — but no, it’s a fairly mediocre album however you balance it. The overt comparisons to Captain Fantastic merely crystallize our complaint.
One of the main problems is that John & Taupin are so unerringly competent that I believe they’ve lost the ability to distinguish between the good and the merely pedestrian. Almost every track on the album is built around an overt, easily accessibly metaphor which Taupin’s lyrics painstakingly develop over the course of a bog-standard verse-bridge-chorus structure. “Tinderbox”, for instance, is obviously about John and Taupin’s tempestuous collaborative relationship:
Tinderbox; two sparks can set the whole thing off,
Rubbing up together around the clock,
Lately we’ve been getting more roll than rock,
You and me together in a tinderbox.
If I had to guess I would say that both John and Taupin have gained some pretty bad habits from writing Broadway material. I was never a fan of showtunes, but compared with the medium’s glory days contemporary Broadway is a particularly witless affair. It seems more than plausible that writing in the degraded Andrew Lloyd Weber narrative mode has retarded their ability to craft allusive language out of anything but the most blatantly obvious cloth. “… And the House Fell Down” is almost as bad as “Tinderbox”, tackling John’s infamous cocaine abuse with lines about “huffing and puffing” until the house falls down.
Worse still are the familiar musical cues placed throughout the album, undoubtedly meant to stir the audiences’ memories but more likely to inspire groans on the part of the conscientious listener. “… And the House Fell Down” is built on the same synth-pop backbeat the propelled “I’m Still Standing”. The title track is even built on the exact same melody and movement, almost measure-for-measure, as the title track off Captain Fantastic. There’s even another track about New York City, in the form of “Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way”, and although it tries to evoke the hushed mystery of “Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters”, there’s absolutely no comparison between the two.
However, it must be noted that while this approach fails throughout the majority of the album, it succeeds admirably on “The Bridge”. Appropriately this is a simple track, the simplest on the album, featuring only John’s voice and piano. Although not nearly as obvious as the filching on “The Captain & The Kid”, the song is built on a slightly reworked version of the first significant riff of John’s career, “Your Song”. Although the much of the album falters in the attempt to reach a melancholy, elegiac mood, this track works perfectly. The borrowed motif, rather than seeming a blatant grab for the listener’s sympathy, instead works just as a good sample should: it evokes the past while also allowing the musician to build it into something new. Lyrically, it’s also the simplest track on the album, a short narrative about the hazards of growing older and losing inspiration:
And every one of us,
Has to face that day,
Do you cross the bridge,
Or do you fade away?
And every one of us,
That ever came to play,
Has to cross the bridge,
Or fade away.
It’s one of the rare moments on the album when you actually feel John might have a fighting chance of crossing that bridge.
The rest of the album, while certainly never dipping below the level of sheer competence, is simply too comfortable to be any good. John is playing with the same people he’s been playing with for decades, and while it might be nice for longtime fans to hear Davey Johnstone’s guitar and Nigel Olsson’s drums, there are also no surprises to be found anywhere at any point in the album. Every expert guitar riff, multitracked background “Oooo” and drum fill has been calculated to within an inch of its life. It doesn’t help that the album features one of the most overbearingly sterile production jobs I’ve ever heard. Everything is recorded with an optimum of sheen and surface, and there’s not an ounce of depth or mystery to be found in the pedestrian mix. What you hear is pretty much what you get, and it’s hard to imagine multiple listenings uncovering a whole lot in the way of sonic depth — a far cry from their sonically adventurous ’70s work.
The album closer, “The Captain & The Kid”, goes so far as to proclaim “you can’t go back and if you try it fails” — a pretty ironic statement considering the overwhelming sense of nostalgia pervading the album. It’s also a sentiment that John himself has said before, only better, on 1989’s Sleeping With The Past (surprisingly, that album has actually aged pretty well). I think that the problems with The Captain & The Kid can be boiled down to the very simple fact that John and Taupin have gotten too comfortable to be able to see their own shortcomings. If they really want to sound contemporary, to once again produce music anywhere near as good as they once dead, to attempt to compete with the likes of the Scissor Sisters, the Killers, Rufus Wainwright and Ray Lamontagne (four acts named in the album’s dedication), they need to shake themselves out of their fatal complacency. No more nostalgia trips. No more working with the same musicians they’ve worked with for over thirty years. No more producing their own material. Step outside of themselves and do something challenging — the worst they can do is fall on their faces.
At this point, I’d say Elton has a lot more to lose from playing it safe than from trying something new. They should track down some of these young punks they’ve been raving about and actually, you know, write songs with them — John recently wrote a song with the Scissor Sisters, but tellingly it ended up on the Scissor Sister’s new album. Maybe hire the Rapture to be his backing band, do a song with the New Pornographers, hell, cut a duets album with Cat Power. Work with a producer who actually has some ideas about how an album should sound, and I don’t mean Rick Rubin. I think Jim O’Rourke would be perfect, or maybe even Dave Fridmann if he felt the desire to go back to his rocking roots a la 11/17/70. Ashley Beedle did wonders on a recent remix of John’s “Are You Ready For Love?” — why not do a whole album with dance producers like the Basement Jaxx and Groove Armada, acts whom John has long publicly championed? Time and money are no object for Elton John, he can pretty much do whatever the fuck he wants: so why not do something interesting? There is literally nothing he could do at this point to shake his place in the history books, but at this rate he’ll be hard pressed to ever again achieve anything of lasting greatness.
I cannot tell you how much I would love to be proven wrong.