Monday, August 17, 2020

CD Odyssey Disc 1398: Elton John

I’m just back from watching a thrilling come-from-behind victory by my beloved Boston Bruins. Well, I watched all of it but the last 90 seconds, when Canadian broadcasting decided I’d much rather watch the Blues play the Canucks. No, I really wouldn’t. But the important thing is…we won in thrilling fashion.

Disc 1398 is…. Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

Artist: Elton John

Year of Release: 1975

What’s up with the Cover? A lot. Our hero has apparently landed on the beach of some tropical island, populated with all manner of colourful beasts. There is also a town in a glass bowl, where suited figures haul around giant watches. This cover would make for an excellent Doodle Art.

How I Came To Know It: This is one of Sheila’s albums, which she bought a number of years ago while fleshing out our Elton John collection.

How It Stacks Up: We have seven Elton John albums, and this is the last one. I had saved last place for it, but after listening I moved it all the way to #5. As this is the last Elton John review, here’s the full recap:

  1. Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 221)
  2. Tumbleweed Connection: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 900)
  3. Madman Across the Water: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 232)
  4. Caribou:  3 stars (reviewed at Disc 709)
  5. Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy: 3 stars (reviewed right here)
  6. Honky Chateau: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1175)
  7. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 526)

Ratings: 3 stars

With the combination of that overblown title and crazy acid-trip album art you could safely bet “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” was going to feature a whole lot of excess. And you’d be right. This record feels like a combination of the best damn dance party you’ve ever attended, combined with the tension headache of that same party when it is still raging at five a.m.

As usual, Elton John has an exceptional talent for writing a melody. Every song skips its way through notes that trill with triumph and joy. You’re not sure if they belong in a rock opera, a stadium or just blasting out of a two-seater convertible, but you know you want to celebrate. Even the sad tunes have a mania in them that makes you throw your hands in the air and let out a whoop.

The production is as lush as Elton John gets, which is saying something. Little flourishes exist throughout every song, but everything is orchestrated in a complementary way, and things never get muddy.

There is a strong sense of soul and R&B that snakes through every song, and against that backdrop Elton plays matchmaker with a whole host of different musical ideas. The title track feels vaguely country, “Better Off Dead” feels like a Broadway number and “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” is pure romance, but every one of them has an undertone of funky rhythms that hold them together.

For the most part, I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed all this excess. At times Elton seems to be trying out musical concepts just to prove he can make them work, but since he tended to succeed it was hard to fault his hubris.

This is the nightclub at its best, with Elton dropping proto-disco dance sounds and making you feel like you’re an integral part of the scene. Even “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” has an element of “the slow dance” song about it, in addition to possessing one of pop music’s great hooks – maybe two of them.

So that’s the dance party, but remember I also mentioned that tension headache. The musical equivalent of that is reflected in songs that tend to be a bit too long. Elton is so good at constructing and resolving melodies that when he drags them out a bit because the band is in the groove, it feels superfluous. His cover of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” (not on the original, but a single release thrown onto my CD re-issue) is a gratuitous six-plus minutes long. Four minutes in I liked it better than the original, but a minute later I was ready for it to be over.

The album has a few of these “ready for it to end moments” (and not just on the bonus tracks) where I felt things just needed to be slightly tighter. I was also drawn less to Bernie Taupin’s lyrics than usual, although this could have been partly due to all that lush music taking centre-stage.

It still won me over, however. “Captain Fantastic” turned out to be a solid record and – despite my preconceived notions going in – a worthy and notable entry in Elton John’s impressive body of work.

Best tracks: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Tower of Babel, Someone Saved My Life Tonight, Better Off Dead, Philadelphia Freedom (technically a single, but on my reissue of the CD)

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