***** (5 stars)
I've had many messages enquiring as to the whereabouts of JW&AT. Battery recharging is essential for any piece of machinery, I'm still refilling my cells as I speak. But the release of the new album has to be attended to, otherwise the momentous moment will be lost. Looking back to the review of TDB when it came out from this standpoint is like looking into a different world. One full of gloom, dread and chronic melancholy. Thankfully all that darkness has had a bright light shone in it's face, the heat has melted it and the light swept away the shade.
During my 'regeneration' period I've switched off from nearly all internet 'so shall meeja' activity. No bad thing at all...as a consequence I was immune to the steady flow of previews, insider reviews and cat call miaows from the sidelines. I heard the first three songs released officially, still called singles in this non-single day and age, but no more until I heard the album. No live tracks, no snippets. Like the old days...kids today don't have that opportunity unfortunately.
So, how do we take this review. Rather than leaving the punchline till the end...because the sharp ones will have guessed early on (unless they scroll down of course) where I'm going on this one...the album is a masterpiece of modern day expressive rock. Can't put it any simple than that. Starting lyrically outwards, Bernie is often considered never to be firing on all cylinders when it comes to the brighter side of life. However he's had a dose of Redex to get his piston pumping more exuberantly. Whatever their origins by the time we join in we're arriving at a point on the album at where they've matured to a delight. If there is any depth lacking it's more than made up for in vibe and tenor. Sometimes it's how you say it rather than what you actually say.
And this is where Elton sweeps in from across the plains. Because as Bernie's soapbox he is very much in 'This Way Up' position. Up being the operative word...if like me your head is done in with modern muses shifting supermarket trolleys of moany, drippy boring music then WCN is like said Redex being injected undiluted into your open vein. Prepare for billows of smoke coming out your exhaust as you put the pedal to the metal...
WONDERFUL CRAZY NIGHT
If there was ever a case of a standalone track being like a fish out of water it was this one. As an opener it has to be heard here and no where else. Placed at the vanguard of the album it's like a reportage of the album that's yet to be listened to. It's a preview and review all rolled in to one. The acoustic washboard style (skiffly in delivery, like England in America you could say as a later song title reflects). The jaunty out in the open riff has a swing to it that is tight and devoid and any loose swagger. Great opener here, Pink was right. The party has started.
IN THE NAME OF YOU
Phew. This is a classic already, the riff may sound familiar but the instrumental breaks are incredible when they kick in. A genuine hook, the chorus has the same accusation held against it. Glassy organ has a crystalline sound to it with no opaqueness. Electric and acoustic guitars switch and glide into one another throughout, classic Elton drops the bridge down a notch before a slightly distorted guitar solo with a hint of sleaze infects proceedings. Brilliant! One of the most original things Elton has done in yonks and yonks.
And the originality keeps flowing. Like an invisble 'Chain', the acoustic licks at the start are underscored with a slight oriental technique. Small cymbals say big things, piano swims low but never disappears as they might say on the Orient. The solo has a Fab Four inclination to it, not the last input from that side of the world either on the album. The opening gambit is used to herald us out but not before a brassy escort speeds up our departure.
When I heard this first the Drovers Ballad came into my mind instantly. Now I can't listen to either song without hearing the other. This isn't one of my favourites on the album at the moment, it goes a bit twee at times. In saying that it might be one of those 'growers', everything else on the album was almost instantly accessible for me. Oh well, moving swiftly along...
I'VE GOT TWO WINGS
Remember I mentioned originality earlier? We're back on new ground again. The light brush work and Elton humming is a combo we've not heard before, have we? His vocal is dominant at the outset, carrying the entire song at this point as one of Bernie's genuine character's appears for the first time. Heavy drums manifest themselves on the chorus, the heaviest on the album so far, and contrast expertly with the verses. The production here is key, the different movements of the song are clearly demarcated. But behind all this intricacy is something simple. Evocative, slightly upsetting possibly, is the far off guitar lick from Davey. Sounding as if it's in another room or even another level of consciousness it's eeriness is at odds with the concept. Which is a good thing.
A GOOD HEART
The opening is intricate in the extreme, but Nigel's trademark slow drumming at last appearing is like seeing your favourite character in a film come into shot. Proper order for a 'big number', Nigel's moment has arrived. And so has Mr. Burnett's. Finally 'getting' what a big Elton song constitutes and requires he brings his own style to the meal table and it becomes a feast. His brass section of choice starts off understated but grows in stature as progress is made. In spite of the ever gathering weight, Davey's acoustic solo carries all that might four square on his back. But we're not done yet. The final chorus has the French horn prominent; remember the similar moment on DLTS? It's here again and hasn't lost any impact or power of delivery in the intervening years.
See earlier review
Tubthumping handclaps batter the door down, there frantic pace once the door is open never lets up. Like the previous song the vocals are picked and placed like diamonds on an expensive ring. The guitar solo is raucous, brimming with frenzy and multiple layers of personality. The piano is ending is a style akin to Cold going into Pain...
...except this song is unlike the destination of that earlier example from Made In England. If the title hasn't given the hint then you know Ray is all over this one like a rash. 'Rasher' Ray takes the lead on a style that has that West Coast feel, high up in the canyon perhaps. Heavy organ from Kim, really closely recorded here, you can feel and hear the keys depressing and rising up with that slightly clicky sound they make. Bluesy solo from Davey is the perfect foil for the 'strum around the camp fire' undercurrent.
Pluck, you might say. Synth appears with a broad backdrop in a plucking sound, gentle percussion holds it all together. That is until the country infused solo when it beefs itself up. A restful way to end the 'regular' album, but that won't last forever if you're a de-luxer.
FREE AND EASY
More Beatles hints here, the intro goes into a Lane that is styled and paved with Pennies. Harmonies dominate here too at times, the entire song in fact is one of the most Beatles influenced tracks Elton has ever done I think. Some really interesting piano lines appear.
ENGLAND AND AMERICA
Imagine Elton in the 80's that wasn't the real Elton in the 80's. Big hair (ooops) with an OTT sound. This is what we get here. Though popping his head in every so often is an organ lick that sounds remarkably like it fell off an Elvis Costello song, circa 1979. More than just an Attraction, the whole song is stadium rock brought into your room of choice at home. One of the heaviest sounds ever on an Elton album, driven by a relentless line from Matt, the backbeat is merciless in what it dishes out. Interspaced backing vocals stick their heads into the very few spaces that appear from start to finish. Slick changes abound but the appearance of tubular bells near the end is merely a cue to engage in more head shaking. Careful that big hair doesn't come loose folks...
That's the album, let's look at the main protagonists who appear on it.
Matt's bass sound is one of the main constant's throughout; if it were isolated it would tell two stories. One would be of power and might, the heavy side of his hand really drives the rockers into a rarely ventured power zone. On the other hand, so to speak, he throws in licks and melodious lines in the spaces that Elton leaves. Not for show but to give the ear something extra to nibble on during the main courses.
I'm going to link John and Ray here as one, not out of convenience but for a deliberate reason. Anybody who knows there Elton onions will be well able to separate what each of them does on stage at the MDP for instance purely by ear. Same happens here on WCN. Part of the listening experience is picking out who does what and where.
Kim on keyboards shadowing Elton on paper doesn't sound easy but rather being in the shadow he creates his own light and shade. Being brought up in a home that appreciated the Hammond organ sound I am more than happy to hear in it liberally spread throughout the whole album. Boxes ticked, loads of them on that count.
Anybody seen the new Star Wars film? Or the X Files return? Of course you have...if not, why not. If so you'll know why they work. No spoilers here but the main reason is the original stars are back, theme music and opening titles remain present, correct and untouched. And the writing is strong. It's as if the gap of years doesn't exist. Same goes for Davey's return. It's not as if he's been away but over the last 10 years you can be damn sure he's had a myriad of idea swimming about just dying to be put down on tape. And now they're cutting loose. There's so many unique sidebars he's added to the album it would be impossible even to timestamp them. What he does do is what he was given free reign to do. Plenty of guitars and plenty more again. The balance between acoustic and electric is wonderfully divergent, as per usual on an Elton album he finds the right voice at the right time.
I mentioned Bernie at the start because as is the case with these things his bit always comes first. He delivers what he was asked to do, lyrics that when coupled with Elton's melodies really spring to life off the paper. They aren't for reading, they are for listening to. And of course singing along too!
One of the main problems (among many) was the songwriting on TDB. This time however Elton has delved into his magic bag and produced something special. Not just once, not just a few times but all the way through. New hooks and distinctive riffs abound aplenty; there's none of the old rehashing of old melodies. The previous mishaps on the last album are a distant memory, fading quickly thankfully.
His vocals are finely balanced all the way through, in fact the best of this decade. There's none of the cod dramatics or forced phrasing. Plain and simple is the best policy and it proves a triumph throughout. I read one comment that the album wasn't 'piano pure' enough. I take the other viewpoint, it's 'piano and band pure.'
Mr. Burnett, as long time readers of JW&AT will no doubt be well aware of, hasn't been a great favourite here. But I did say back in 2013, when we were younger...and funnier too as some might say...I would support him if he got the band back in and did a proper EJ/BT album. No faffing about, plain and simple rock and roll. Forget trying to be stylish for the sake of it, just do it naturally. And this is what we get. I'm almost certain, nay I am certain, he's never worked with an ensemble of this caliber. A group of supporting actors who are intrinsic to the end result. Here's why.
The remake of True Grit had Jeff Bridges and that was really it. A great actor but redoing a classic in the place of an icon is hard enough. But not having the same backup to make the main protagonist at ease and therefore free to express themselves is a handicap. John Wayne had Kim Darby, Glen Campbell, Jeff Corey, Robert Duvall, Jeremy Slate for instance on the payroll. Not to mention Dennis Hopper, if you please. Part of the attraction that brings you in falls at their feet, once in you realise why they are there.
If proof were needed, not here anyways, but it proves yet again why the band should not have been ignored on the last two albums. Hindsight is a gift that we all possess, insight however is something that few can claim to have. The band have that about Elton's music, WCN delivers that from start to finish. The producer was cany enough to let the band get on with it and get on with it they did. The sound is as full and broad as you're ever likely to hear from any current artist for example. If somebody asks me what are Elton's best albums, I always go for the 'band' albums as a good starting point. WCN fits into that category seamlessly.
So where does WCN fit in to the Elton cannon? It's been fired and the bang has traveled a distance. Is it up to the 70's standard? I'm not going down that silly route, it's not fair to the old albums or this one. Even the albums of the last decade are from another era and have their own place but a lot has changed since then too. What I can do is look at it in reference to the the T-Bone era. The Union is a side project in my book so we'll skip to The Diving Board. And then we'll skip again. When I started the blog one of the things I said was about perspective. From the standing position of now, the era of WCN, TDB looks even more disastrous. Is that possible, you better believe it. Listen to TDB and WCN back to back, its like seeing a Lada behind a Bentley Continental at the traffic lights. Embarrassing for the Lada driver being in such an old banger in such esteemed company, embarrassing for the Bentley driver sharing the same road as that rust bucket.
Wonderful Crazy Night is the album that the fans wanted, the fans have got, the fans love. Make no mistake about this. When the dust settles the legacy of this album will have established itself. The big question is, do you leave it at that or go back for more. I'll take the cue from little boy Twist, please Sir Elton, can we have some more?!