Elton John/Leon Russell – The Union

The Union

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I’m a big Elton John fan, but his recent output perplexes me. Specifically, I have a hard time reconciling his two facets. On one hand we have the man who produced Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…, a television show which lays bare Elton’s love for great music and his passion to share it with everybody, regardless of its popularity. On the other hand we have the man whose post-1970s output consists almost totally of overproduced pop albums that lack the soul of his earlier work. There’ve been some good records since Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (his best, in my opinion) but I find myself wondering why he doesn’t produce the kind of record that his television program lauds.

And now Elton’s new collaboration with singer-songwriter Leon Russell, The Union, is staring me in the face, and I must wonder no more. Elton has produced that kind of record, and it’s stunningly good.

The Union is the kind of album Elton’s had in him his whole career–a pastiche of Americana, a singer-songwriter showcase that lets us know why Elton’s one of the best of them. This type of album has shown itself before–Tumbleweed Connection, for instance (my second favorite), or the 2001 Songs from the West Coast, which I think was the best Elton record in at least 20 years (until this one, anyway). It may seem strange for an English pianist who doesn’t actually write his own lyrics to produce a singer-songwriter album, but it works.

Part of the reason Elton can pull that feat off, I imagine, is that he’s a major student of music history. Many of the guests he and Elvis Costello brought onto Spectacle excel at this kind of music–Neko Case, John Mellencamp, Roseanne Cash, etc., and I get the feeling Elton’s been studying. He’s also brought along some friends. Leon Russell co-stars here, and the album is as much his as Elton’s. His weathered vocals bring gravity to the songs on this album; check out the opening track, “If It Wasn’t for Bad,” to see what I mean. Another major player is producer T-Bone Burnett. The Union is the third album he’s worked on this year that I own (along with the aforementioned Mellencamp and Jakob Dylan), and his country/folk production gives this album a distant, sometimes haunting sound that I think really compliments Elton. A song like “There’s No Tomorrow,” for instance, really shows what T-Bone brings to the project.

There was a time, many years ago, when Elton John was my favorite recording artist. Although that’s passed, I still find it fascinating to look at him through the lens of songwriter in the context of music history. With all his Disney soundtracks and his Broadway musicals, it’s easy to forget that for about six years in the 1970s Elton was on the cutting edge of singer-songwriter pop/rock. The Union, fortunately, makes it easy to remember why.

tags: elton john, leon russell, the union

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