The rocket man returns to his very best on 30th LP…
Combining intimacy and extroversion, immediacy and reflection, in a way only accessible to a performer able to tweak one’s tearducts whilst wearing a lavishly embroidered, gold-lamé general’s costume, The Diving Board may be the best album of Elton John’s entire career.
Clearly reinvigorated by The Union, his 2010 collaboration with Leon Russell, Elton hooked up again with producer T-Bone Burnett for a veritable blizzard of work. In three days, he and Taupin had written eleven songs, the bulk of which were recorded virtually live in the studio in just five days with a typical T-Bone crack team designed to re-focus the star on a basic piano trio format, with the peerless Jay Bellerose bringing snap, punch and roll to the grooves, and Raphael Saadiq lacing expansive basslines through the songs. Around these core tracks, further colouration is provided by keyboardist Keefus Ciancia, Motown percussionist Jack Ashford, and Doyle Bramhall II and Burnett on guitars.
It’s a supple, flexible crew more than capable of bending to accommodate whatever style and emphasis is demanded from Elton’s best collection of songs and stories in ages, an anthology in which threads of maturity, melancholy, sympathy and insight are braided into a strong, compelling rope that pulls the listener from the opening valediction of “Oceans Away” to the closing rumination of “The Diving Board“. In the former, he adopts a smart, in places almost military, inflection to pay tribute to old soldiers haunted by fallen friends, “the ones who hold onto the ones they have to leave behind”, a respectful acknowledgement of duty discharged. By contrast, the latter deals waspishly with the modern fascination with empty celebrity, a talent-show lottery culture which places its supposed winners high up on the diving board – a place from where “you see it all”, but which equally exposes your every move and mistake to public gaze. With Elton’s bluesy delivery tinted with subdued horns, it’s Ray Charles crossed with Randy Newman.
In between these poles reside a host of characters struggling to find their rightful place, their due respect, their heart’s ease: from the would-be poet of “My Quicksand”, long since sucked into a corrosive lifestyle, and the Depression-era dance-contestants of “The New Fever Waltz”, to the blind black musician of “Ballad Of Blind Tom“, using his instinctive gift to both lubricate his way through life, and bring more intangible aesthetic satisfaction. Several tracks hint back to Elton’s early career, with both the dustbowl odyssey “Town Called Jubilee” and the gospel number “Take This Dirty Water” throwbacks to Tumbleweed Connection territory.
Leon Russell‘s influence is reflected in the frisky, rumbustious R&B piano of “Mexican Vacation”, while the shadow of David Ackles, an important model for the John/Taupin songwriting style, falls across “Voyeur”, once considered as the album’s title-track. It’s a sombre work dealing with the way that we seek respite from adversity and melancholy, wars political and emotional, in the temporary solace of snatched liaisons, where “a whisper in the dark is holding more truth than a shout”.
Elsewhere, the jaunty country-pop plaint “Can’t Stay Alone Tonight” deals in more optimistic manner with the same theme of estrangement covered in “Home Again”. One of the album’s highlights, the latter confronts the need to leave, and the desire to return, against a bleak piano soundscape whipped by wispy, wind-like synth noise, the homesick protagonist regretting “all this time I spent being someone else’s friend”. Another standout is “Oscar Wilde Gets Out“, in which the writer’s flight from Reading Gaol to France is borne on a compelling piano setting whose momentum evokes both furtive escape and decisive break, driven along by the restrained slap-punch of Bellerose’s drums. It’s also one of Taupin’s best lyrics, blending regret and fond reminiscence with the bitter sting of humiliation, Wilde compared to “the head of John The Baptist in the arms of Salome”.
Punctuated by three piano miniatures, “Dream #1, #2 and #3”, which serve as palate-cleansing sorbets between sharp changes of mood and direction, it’s an impressively strong set of songs, diverse in both lyrical themes and musical styles, and delivered with a confident range of drama and empathy by a “heritage” act resolutely refusing to rest on his laurels, an artist secure in his abilities – and, yes, in his continuing relevance.
How did these sessions work?
“On the first three days of recording, in 2012, we wrote 11 songs. All the tracks on the first session were done in five days. We went back this year and Bernie wrote some additional lyrics. I chose four and they were written and recorded in two days.”
You continue to work prolifically with Bernie Taupin…
“The great advantage of having Bernie as a lyricist is he’s a very cinematic writer. I get a piece of paper [from him] and it has as story on it. Then I sit down at the keyboard…and because the story he’s telling affects what I’m hearing…something comes out. I don’t know what it is. It’s as exciting as it was when I wrote the first melody to his first lyric, way back in 1967.”
Tell me about working with T Bone Burnett.
“When you’ve got musicians like these guys behind you, it’s so exciting. This was done, more or less, live. That’s the way I used to record. In the old days, with the Elton John album  we were recording live with an orchestra, and I was terrified. But it’s the way to do it. And that’s the way T-Bone does it, he assembles this great group of musicians, and hence things don’t take five or six months.”