This came out in 2001 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):
We’ve all missed Elton John — which is kind of funny, considering he hasn’t exactly been away.
Hardly, in fact. If you’re counting, Songs From the West Coast is the fifth Elton John record in the past two years. Or at least the fifth he’s put his name to. None of them has been what you could really call a full-blown Elton John album — three were Broadway soundtracks and movie scores for The Muse, Aida and Road to El Dorado; the fourth was last year’s quickie cash-in live set One Night Only. So yeah, you could say Elton’s been keeping busy. But you could also say he hasn’t exactly been working up a sweat.
Songs From the West Coast — his first proper studio album since 1997’s Big Picture — is a step in the right direction. It ain’t The Bitch is Back, but it is the return of Elton the pop balladeer. And the latest reunion of Elton and several of his longtime collaborators: Lyricist Bernie Taupin, guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson. These guys either wrote or played practically every hit John had in his ’70s heyday, from the breakthrough hit Your Song to the immortal triumphs like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. So right off the bat, having them on board bodes well.
And the more you listen, the more sense it makes — the classic sound of that magical early ’70s era is what John seems to be aiming for on these superbly crafted tunes. Specifically, the days of Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across the Water, his highly under-rated albums from ’71. Songs like Country Comfort, Burn Down the Mission, Tiny Dancer and Levon typified the earthy, earnest tone of those discs. It’s a similar tone to what Elton creates throughout this 12-song set. The Emperor’s New Clothes, Dark Diamond, Look Ma, No Hands, and the Beatles-like first single I Want Love (you might have seen the video with Robert Downey Jr. lip-synching in an empty mansion) fill the lovelorn lament quota. The playful slow-blues Wasteland and the country-pop ditty Birds supply the rootsy touches. American Triangle, an elegy for homophobia victim Mathew Shepard, provides some true emotional depth.
What you won’t find on these songs is just as important. There are no super-slick choruses, no overblown arrangements, no flamboyant flourishes. For the first time in a long time, it seems Elton is putting the songs and their integrity ahead of their chart potential. Of course, it’s not like these tunes aren’t amazingly commercial — after 30 years, Elton could probably knock off a top 10 single in his sleep (and probably has a few times). But here, they feel like songs first and singles second, and that’s a treat.
If there’s one downside, it’s that lyricist Taupin seems to have lost his sense of humour. Once able to inject a drop of wry humour into even the darkest ballad, Taupin’s only humourous moments here come when he isn’t trying — like when he tries to compare himself (or worse, Elton) to legendary bluesman Robert Johnson on The Wasteland. “Come on Robert Johnson / Though we’re years apart / You and I know what it’s like with the devil in our heart.” Yeah, sure, Bernie. Whatever you say.
The odd gaffe aside, however, Songs From the West Coast is Elton’s most solid and coherent effort in ages. And while you might not be listening to any of these tunes in five years, they’re indisputably better than the stuff Elton put out on his last four outings.