The double album in pop music has a checkered history. The very standard by which they are all judged, The Beatles’ White Album, was unbearably scattershot, burying gems large and small among irritating filler, the lion’s share of the latter being cranked out by John Lennon. At the height of their powers, The Fab Four began to feel as if they could do nothing non-fab, or were entitled to do as much of it as they saw fit, which turned out to be quite a lot.
Since then, the double album has been seen as something of a status symbol, a signal of an artist’s justified presumption that they are great enough to send their every idea out for the world to consume. This occasionally works, but it seems you have to be as talented as Todd Rundgren, The Clash, Stevie Wonder, The Who, or The Stones to be an unqualified success.
Elton John, for as much of a roll as he was on by the early ’70s, didn’t quite enter that esteemed bunch when he released Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. After an aborted attempt to record an album in Jamaica (the first sign of trouble was that John was emulating the Stones for, of all things, Goat’s Head Soup), John and his crack band retreated to the Honky Chateau in France where they wrote a giant batch of tracks in a couple of weeks to go with the ones John had penned in his hotel room in Jamaica while cowering in fear of the Kingston streets.
Perched at the peak of their creative powers, John, guitarist Davey Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray, drummer Nigel Olsson, and lyricist Bernie Taupin were able to record at a remarkable clip, getting keepers with only a few takes of songs written in the same day. Such an equation is incomplete without a heavy dose of hubris, and Yellow Brick Road certainly has that, but its shortcomings are of a more pleasant variety than those of The Beatles. The majority of the songs are good, and with some creative CD player programming, an enveloping mood bubbles to the surface, one heavy with big orchestras, radiant harmonies, and John’s swooping, elastic voice.
Let the album play straight through, however, and its schizoid nature grows all too clear. Struggling valiantly to maintain the cinematic adventure it does so well, the record gets dragged down by various ballads, strained efforts, and underwritten songs. It dives straight from the regrettable-prog-cum-straight-rock of “Funeral For a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding” into the schmaltz of “Candle in the Wind”, a song that started out bad and only grew worse with time and an ad-hoc re-tribute. Then comes “Bennie and the Jets”, a fluke that wound up at the top of the pop and R&B charts. Next is the title track, and so on in wild jumps until the record spins to a stop.
But like most albums with huge ambition and a handful of great songs, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road has more than its share of supporters, and this made it a fine selection for the deluxe treatment on its 30th anniversary. Upgraded as a SACD/CD hybrid with a bonus DVD chronicling the making of the album, it reminds the world with unmatched sonic clarity of a very different Elton John than the one we have come to know and loathe over the past two decades. This little goofball — fat, balding, gap-toothed — was unexpected in just about every way possible. Unsexy as could be, John became a glam icon that dwarfed Marc Bolan and David Bowie in terms of popularity if not underground credibility.
His homosexuality (er, bisexuality) was a liability instead of the asset it was for Bowie. And from a musical standpoint, this eclectic craftsman ran the gamut of musical styles only to become enshrined as a balladeer in the same camp as Cat Stevens. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road shows that he was much more than just the man questioning whether you can feel the love tonight. He was masterful in spurts at giving grand voice to Taupin’s doe-eyed escapism, spinning musical fantasy worlds as expertly as any of his peers. The album would’ve been well-served by a good editor, but even as a mixed bag, it works well enough to justify revisiting three decades afterwards.