Friday, June 10, 2016

Madman Across the Water (AM8)

Madman Across the Water is a darker, more inward-facing work than Tumblweed Connetion. Madman is characterized by internal struggle. Themes of isolation, alienation, failed ambition, abandonment, occupation, debilitation, and emotional instability are brought to the forefront. What makes it all so compelling is that all this turmoil is wrapped in pretty paper and near perfect studio production exemplified by the lush orchestral arrangements of Paul Buckmaster on 7 of the LP’s 9 tracks. With openers, "Tiny Dancer" and "Levon," up-tempo standards 40 years on, one wouldn’t expect what follows to tinge the romance of Tumbleweed, not in sepias, but in shades of dark gray.

Both tracks set an expectation for the rest of the album that is simply not to be fulfilled. The soaring  vocals, lush supporting strings, singalong choruses, and epic pop bombast found within these first two tracks suggest that Elton and Bernie needed to get the pair, however epic, out of the way.

"Razor Face" is tuneful and catchy when compared to the opening tracks, yet it manages to convey an elegiac musical expression of discovering beauty in social detritus, framed by touches of John/Taupin grandeur.

From the opening moments "Madman Across The Water" is one of the darkest and most haunting songs Elton John would ever record. The mental hospital imagery imbues the song with a foreboding sense of isolation, as if a condescending tour group walks through a freakshow tent gazing at the narrator in pity, horror, dismay, whatever you want to call it. The serpentine orchestrations and minor key milieu, heightened by a driving acoustic guitar and John’s ephemeral piano work, make this the most mesmerizing song on the album; possibly one of John’s all-time best. Here the listener is left with an image of Elton and Bernie trapped in a mental ward of an America they never expected to find, two isolated madmen stuck across the pond from the homey confines of England.

Side 2 opens with "Indian Sunset" which is a stunning mini-movie of song. Reportedly this was Taupin's view of the plight of the American Indian in the face of American encroachment. Elton John's voice is so perfectly attuned to Taupin's focused and pitch-perfect lyricism, alongside Buckmaster's powerful orchestrations and Dudgeon’s sure-hand production, subtle when it needs to be, yearning then angry then explosive and when it ends in heartbreak.

The tuneful, deeply melodic "Holiday Inn" captures more than any other song on the LP the vagabond spirit of the American concept. The catchy 3/4 time signature, plus Davey Johnstone's performances on both sitar and mandolin, make this one of the most enjoyable songs to listen to, just on the melody alone. "Rotten Peaches" sings of a landscape littered with failed dreams and squandered potential. This is an odd song, busy and frantically paced, a song that may have worked on a different level on Tumbleweed. The album ends rather quizzically with "All The Nasties" followed by "Goodbye."  Despite the latter's title, "All the Nasties" should have been the closer. Beautiful soaring melodies, an epic build and a chorus for us all to bellow,"Oh my soul," a fitting encore to the perfunctory "Goodbye." It wasn't up to me.