Release Date: Sep 24, 2013
Record label: Capitol
Genre(s): Singer/Songwriter, Adult Contemporary, Pop/Rock, Adult Alternative Pop/Rock, Contemporary Pop/Rock, Album Rock, Rock & Roll, Soft Rock
The voice is deeper and more sonorous than it was 40 years ago, but there’s an undeniable air of familiarity to Elton John’s first album since 2010’s Leon Russell collaboration The Union. T Bone Burnett is once again in the producer’s chair but, even more than the Russell hook-up, this is the sound of Elton touching base with his past. Led by his most eloquent piano-playing in years, and augmented by a small, unobtrusive band, The Diving Board is possessed by the ghosts of such early high watermarks as Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across The Water.
The Diving Board isn’t love at first listen. It quietly opens itself after several spins, unveiling a complex, winking toe-tapper of an album. Elton John throws a laugh-it-off free-for-all rager. And you’re invited. Slow-burner “The New Fever Waltz” sounds like a softened game of Madlibs ….
Elton's 30th solo studio album finds him opting for basic piano, bass and drums, many of the numbers stripped back and given extra atmosphere by T Bone Burnett's production. The setup gives the tracks an honesty and reach absent from so much of his prime pop material. Second number Oscar Wilde Gets Out builds to a thudding intensity with bass drum and strings from a beautiful opening solo figure, while A Town Called Jubilee and Take This Dirty Water (sample couplet: "If you break some bones on landing/ You'll know you're built to last"), with its slide guitars and female backing vocals, could have been recorded in 1974.
Tabloid fixture, Las Vegas institution, movie producer, duet partner with everyone from Lady Gaga to Queens of the Stone Age – even in his sixties, Elton John still thrives in the spotlight. Yet musically, his priorities have shifted. When he released 2010's The Union – a triumphant collaboration with Leon Russell, which reclaimed the legacy of one of Sir Elton's greatest inspirations – he said that the project had left a permanent mark on his creative direction.
During last week's inaugural Brits Icon ceremony, Elton John discussed his keen interest in new music, but his first solo album in seven years is an emphatically conventional singer-songwriter set. Still, it's also a beauty. Recorded in under two weeks with a core piano/bass/drums trio, The Diving Board is a lovely union of craftsmanship and artistry.
It’s hard to imagine Elton John, revered national icon, spawning the ‘greatest album of his career’ in 2013 – firstly, given the quality of records like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but also as he’s entering his sixth decade in music. However, some outlets are propositioning just that. His recent efforts, notwithstanding his collaborative ones, may have lacked the sparkle, the pizazz and the pop mastery of his ’70s classics, but does that give credence to the claims of him achieving a zenith with The Diving Board? Perhaps it’s just better than post-millenial LPs, and in comparison seems phenomenal? We’ll see.
Elton John has been known for his flamboyant, over-the-top nature, so there’s something refreshing in hearing him using a more reflective tone. John’s late-career output has shown him playing music rooted more in country than in rock and roll or pop, and this suits him at this stage. He doesn’t really need to do another “The Bitch is Back” or a snarky, off the cuff lark like “Made in England”.
There have surely been few greater demonstrations of the maxim that “absence makes the heart grow fonder” than the hysteria which greeted the return of David Bowie earlier this year. His last album, 2003’s Reality, had met with middling reviews and vanished quickly from the charts. This year’s The Next Day, in contrast, hit the number one on iTunes in over 60 countries and its Mercury Prize and Q Award nominations seem certain to be the opening in a torrent of accolades.
Elton JohnThe Diving Board(Capitol Records)Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars Elton John’s new album The Diving Board starts out with “Oceans Away,” an elegiac ballad featuring just the man and his piano. The stark approach is the M.O. for much of the album, as producer T Bone Burnett strips away the easy listening gloss that seemed like it had permanently adhered to John’s work for the last few decades.
Elton’s 30th album finds him in reflective mood. There are no ‘Crocodile Rock’ or ‘I’m Still Standing’ stompers here. Christ, even ‘Candle In The Wind’ was upbeat in comparison. He’s gone back to his roots – it’s piano and percussion only. “I’m watching you, I’m watching ….
So the story goes like this. Inspired by their work on the Leon Russell duet album The Union, producer T-Bone Burnett encouraged Elton John to return to making albums like he used to in the old days for 2013's The Diving Board, harking back to the days when he wrote quickly and recorded with little more than a rhythm section. This all sounds like a major shift in aesthetic for John, but Elton has been on a decade-long quest to tap into that old magic, beginning his voyage into the past with 2001's Songs from the West Coast and getting progressively elliptical with each subsequent release.
At first, Elton John’s The Diving Board seems to suggest a statement of presence, nearly everything but the aging performer’s voice and piano kept to a bare minimum. 31 albums into his career, handfuls of mega-hit singles and platinum albums in the rearview, he’s sitting at the keys, opting for a simple background from which to stand out, rather than get swallowed up in elaborate arrangements. It’s almost inconsequential that Bernie Taupin wrote all of the lyrics, or that T-Bone Burnett ran the sessions; this is all Elton John, all the time.
Elton John’s thirtieth studio album is, by the man's own admission, 'not going to be chasing One Direction up the charts'. That sounds fair for an artist whose career is now into its sixth decade, but any songwriter worth their salt should have the confidence to say, on the release of new material, that it’s perfect, or as near perfect as they’re happy to have released anyway. It’s not like there’s a pressure to deliver the new record to capitalize on hype.
A tremendous compilation could be made of the best songs from Elton John’s albums of the last 30 years. As whole entities, some were stronger than others, but the generally polished and competent affairs rarely demanded full replays. For the last decade or so, John and his criminally undersung lyricist Bernie Taupin have flirted with the sound of their creative ’70s peak.
Were it released in the LP era, Elton John's "The Diving Board" would have arrived as a fancy double gatefold album, 15 songs separated by instrumental miniatures to open each side. Such a presentation would have added an extra layer of import, signaling the arrival of an album to be taken seriously amid toss-away hitmakers. An assured record that addresses history and drama with poise and confidence, the veteran pianist and his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin tackle melody and story as they've done before — while visiting a vividly imagined musical realm.
Elton John The Diving Board (Capitol/Mercury) Paul McCartney New (Hear Music) Just call them Sir. While one, Sir Elton John, 66, reclaims the piano-centric simplicity of his earliest works on 31st LP The Diving Board, the other, Sir Paul McCartney, 71, rockets forward into the robotic New millennium. Both approaches are problematic. Hitting reset in 2010 with Leon Russell collaboration The Union, the former – author of more than 50 Top 40 hits – eschews formulaic pop for the stripped barroom noir of "Oscar Wilde Gets Out" and church hymn "A Town Named Jubilee." All too soon, though, "My Quicksand," which would be a perfect Rufus Wainwright vehicle, sinks overwrought while drawing the disc's Maginot Line.