Elton John has been known for his flamboyant, over-the-top nature, so there’s something refreshing in hearing him using a more reflective tone. John’s late-career output has shown him playing music rooted more in country than in rock and roll or pop, and this suits him at this stage. He doesn’t really need to do another “The Bitch is Back” or a snarky, off the cuff lark like “Made in England”. He has a lifetime of music, touring, and personal trials and tribulations he’s been through, all of which can inform and inspire his music. Truly, mining that contemplative vibe and filtering it through a more relaxed lens fits him well, and on album number 30 he proves quite handily that he hasn’t lost his touch. His collaboration with Leon Russell on The Union has clearly colored this release. The grandiose echoing guitar fills of earlier singles “I Want Love” and the energetic pulse of tracks like “Made in England” and his Kiki Dee duet “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart” are gone – and in their place is an Elton John the likes of which hasn’t been seen since his 1969 debut.
Elton John has not stated this would be his last album, but the lived-in, restful quality of the first track “Oceans Away” suggests such a thing. The track has the spare, inviting quality of his earlier work only improved by more than 40 years of recording, touring, and honing his craft. As mentioned before, many have commented on how The Union reigned in Taupin’s bombast and let a more rootsy feeling flow through the songs. Taupin has clearly taken a cue from those praises — there are traces of his classic bombast here, yes — but they carry a more worn-in, relaxed groove. This time around, they never feel like over-blown touches threatening to blow out the speakers. It’s a welcome change of pace — which isn’t to say John’s spunky songs are bad, but after years of perhaps overly-embellished tunes, hearing him in a spare and raw-sounding setting is refreshing. “The Ballad of Blind Tom” feels like it could have been a part of The Captain and the Kid, but with this similarity running straight through, it doesn’t feel like a throwaway or a b-side. Instead, it meshes with the reflective and quiet tone running through every track on this disc.
Speaking of the not-really-a-swan-song-but-kind-of vibe that runs through the whole disc, “My Quicksand” comes off like a eulogy for a troubadour, battered and worn, who just wants to rest. And just as the mood seems all too funereal, John turns up the spark a little with “Can’t Stay Alone Tonight”, which feels like a prequel to that same troubadour story found in “My Quicksand”. The wanderer seeking companionship on a cold lonely night is a well-worn trope of pop music, sure, but John carries it with a flair that is uniquely his, and it helps to balance the mood of the album out quite nicely. The “let me peel away the shields I’ve worn all these years and let you inside” vibe of “Voyeur” marks the clear change in his approach. He may have a flamboyant and over the top history — displayed in costume, behavior and [most importantly] in music — but this is the sound of a musician keenly aware that such tropes are no longer necessary. Here they would just be a distraction. It could come across as jarring for listeners who are used to the more flamboyant side of Elton John. But at this stage in his career, toning it down is no risk at all. He has earned his place in the pantheon of talented and successful performers, so such risks are his to take without fear, and that kind of fearless attitude contributes to Elton John sounding better than he has in a long time.
The Diving Board is summed up nicely by “Home Again” where John’s mournful lines “Spending all our time / trying to get back home again” are both a selling point for the album and a mission statement all by itself. John has spent his career wearing so many masks, bending his musical style towards pop, disco, country, folk, and all in between. The skyscraping vocal turns of his early smash “Rocket Man” are gone here, as is the pop-ballad perfection of other classics like “The One”. In their place is a world-weary but still strong-at-heart musician looking to keep on telling his stories. At times this album can seem a calculated flip side to the heavily layered tracks found on Peachtree Road, and that’s far from a bad thing. With The Diving Board and all its relaxed, appealing textures, John has rediscovered his roots, and managed to bring his career full circle. Once again, for 40+ years in the business, not an easy thing to pull off, and he pulls it off well.