Sunday, June 12, 2016

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is the most romantic album ever produced; romance in the most literal vein, a period of idylls and pastoral settings, of painted ladies and Roy Rogers. In a conversation about music with a friend, I once referred to Elton John's long career as divided into his Beatles years (everything up until Blue Moves in 1976), followed by his Wings years (starting with A Single Man in 1978); a standard, quality, and even timelessness, in contrast to later years, even The One, and Made in England. Not to say that I dislike the post 1977 era Elton John (though often I do), just that I favor what his label refers to as the "Classic" years. Drugs and over touring had taken away the passion, and it showed; Elton was a hit machine without the substance.

But no one cares, those classic years, like The Beatles brief but stellar career, suffice as one of the greatest of musical canons. The variety of musical styles and emotional atmospheres on Yellow Brick Road, as merely one example,is truly astonishing, and fun as shit. Though the double LP is best known for the mega-hits "Bennie and the Jets" (like, the greatest 45 of all time), the title track, and "Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting," there's more in the toss-offs than most artists fit into a career. "Bennie" begins with nothing more than the down-beats of its now familiar march: Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Imagine the maturity and audacity it takes to write a song in that way, and to resist the temptation to have something going on, anything, on the piano or the drums, somewhere, something, between the beats - indeed, less is more. Elton catchy minimalist melody coupled with Taupin's lyrics perfectly capture the adolescent rush of excitement over the latest pop sensation, and the result is a true pop classic, one teenagers sing today on a bus to a game, "B, b, b, Bennie and the Jetssssss."

"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," too, lies on the same rich vein of simplicity and experimentation. Both the strong verse and chorus merge in an unexpected many: " future lies, beyond the yellow brick Ro-o-oad. Ah-ah-ah-ah." splicing the last note over to the note of a very different and unrelated counterpointal melody. And it works seamlessly.

Loaded with FM airplay from "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding," "Grey Seal," and "Harmony" to "Candle in the Wind," typical of the album's emotionally precise gems, and part of one perfect album side. One of my favorites is "Roy Rogers," a sensitive waltz-ballad about a middle-aged man who escapes from the drudgery of his domestic and professional life by watching Roy Rogers every night on TV after his family goes to bed. Elton's composition and performance capture perfectly the contradictory emotions of the scene - the genuine euphoria of the escape into Wild West fantasy, and the tedium of daily life.

One of the finest cuts on the album is "Sweet Painted Lady," about a prostitute in a seaside town who services sailors. Elton's composition here mimics the conventions of seaside music halls, again with emotionally complex results. The tune is simultaneously cynical but sympathetic, and the recorded sounds of seagulls and waves complete the scene as precisely as the train and dogs on The Beach Boys' "Caroline, No."

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is an AM9; not the perfect Elton, that would come next with Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, but the most thoughtful and romantic twist on pop since Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.