“Don’t you know I’m still standing, better than I ever did / looking like a true survivor / feeling like a little kid.” Yep. Well, okay, maybe not “better than I ever did”, but in a year that has already seen so many musical legends leave us too soon, Elton John’s upbeat new album Wonderful Crazy Night brings a much-needed injection of good cheer and sunny optimism. It’s an album about living and loving and wringing everything you can out of each moment, all set to jaunty piano-rock very much reminiscent of Elton’s ‘70s classics.
Elton John released his first album, Empty Sky, nearly 47 years ago… and 30 studio albums later (not to mention scores of live albums, compilations, and soundtracks), album #32 is a strong bet to be his biggest seller in many years. Elton John’s last album was 2013’s dreary and downbeat The Diving Board — the vibe couldn’t be more different on his latest. Don’t call it a comeback, though. Elton John has released some excellent and sadly overlooked albums in the new millennium: Songs from the West Coast, Peachtree Road and The Captain & The Kid are all quite solid, but the only album in recent years that received much attention was his 2010 collaboration with Leon Russell, The Union. Wonderful Crazy Night, with Elton smiling broadly on the cover in a pair of funky red sunglasses, is beamed straight from his ‘70s heyday. Yeah, his voice is considerably huskier (which is understandable, given that he turns 69 in March), but make no mistake, Elton John can still deliver.
The album’s opening track and title-song, “Wonderful Crazy Night”, is easily Elton’s liveliest single since 1990’s “Club at the End of the Street”. It sounds like it could have been an old outtake from Caribou or Goodbye Yellow Brick Road that he dusted off and breathed to life. It’s easy to understand why — Elton is working again with his career-long partner, lyricist Bernie Taupin, and he also brings back guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson for the first time in a decade. Elton’s piano swings over a fiery groove on “In the Name of You” and “Claw Hammer”, both exemplifying the Southern-rock vibe that imbues the entire record. “Claw Hammer” in particular has a nice closing section in which Elton’s sterling piano-work weaves through a dynamic brass section.
“Blue Wonderful” is a breezy love song that opens as if it’s going to be a ballad but then springs into an upbeat chorus with some terrific harmony vocals. Elton’s piano-work, which is stellar throughout the album, shines particularly bright on “Blue Wonderful”. The accordion on “I’ve Got 2 Wings” gives the song a bit of a New Orleans feel. It’s a gem strongly reminiscent of classic albums like Madman Across the Water or Tumbleweed Connection.
“A Good Heart” is the type of earnest ballad that could fit easily on any Elton John album from the last 30 years. The arrangement is ace, especially the instrumental interlude in which the acoustic guitar, piano, and bass all bounce into and around each other until an electric guitar lick and rising brass ushers back the chorus. Had this been released in the ‘80s, when Elton scored Top 40 hits with ballads like “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues”, “Blue Eyes”, “Sacrifice” and “Nikita”, there is little doubt that “A Good Heart” would follow those songs into the Top 10.
Wonderful Crazy Night delivers one great song after another. A few of Elton John’s albums tail-off toward the end, but that is not the case here. “Looking Up” opens with an electric piano that’s highly reminiscent of ZZ Top’s “La Grange” before settling into a rollicking groove that keeps Elton’s piano high in the mix where it belongs. “The Open Chord” is a change in direction – it’s an anthemic track with a wide open melody built on a prominent foundation of strings. The album closes with its version of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”. “England and America” is a high energy rocker with both Elton’s piano and Davey Johnstone’s electrifying guitar churning hard. It will no doubt quickly become a regular part of Elton’s live show.
Wonderful Crazy Night is everything a fan could want from a new Elton John album — almost. The only thing missing is that one truly great song, that classic that would stand up next to Elton John’s endless parade of essential singles. As good as the tracks are, there isn’t that one real standout. Still, his voice sounds great, the songs are catchy and engaging but still well-crafted, and Elton and his band seem to be having a genuinely good time. It’s difficult to conceive of anything Elton could release that would challenge the supremacy of his ‘70s classics, but Wonderful Crazy Night is a strong addition to his already vast musical legacy that ranks with Too Low for Zero, Sleeping with the Past and Songs from the West Coast as one of his finest albums of the last 35 years.