RIYL: Leon Russell, classic Elton John, aging gracefully
For the majority of the ’70s, Elton John was positively unstoppable – and for much of the ’80s, he was so creatively bankrupt that by the time he returned to limited form with 1987’s Reg Strikes Back, it was such a welcome surprise that he’s been handed a pass for most of the lukewarm adult contemporary pop he’s released in the intervening two decades and change. Compared to Leather Jackets and Ice on Fire, late-period Elton like Songs from the West Coast and Peachtree Road is a step up, but those albums still lack the heat and creative energy of his best work, and a lot of the positive reviews he’s gotten over the last couple of decades have come through a combination of blessed relief and the standard grade inflation enjoyed by veteran artists who manage not to suck outright.
Leon Russell, meanwhile, has never released anything as half-baked as the junk Elton was peddling at his nadir – but then, Leon never had as far to fall as Elton, and he’s had the luxury of carving out a low-key career for himself as an indie artist in between tours and session cameos. If people know Russell’s name at all, it’s usually because of his early ’70s work; his more recent releases might be second- or third-tier stuff, but they had fewer people to disappoint. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the prospect of Elton and Leon teaming up for The Union, while intriguing, had the look and feel of a classic rock setup – the kind of project with a strong concept, and executed by performers with undeniable talent, but bound to underwhelm because the artists can’t, or won’t, light their creative spark.
So here’s a happy surprise for anyone who’s suffered through Elton’s post-’70s work and wondered when he’d shift back out of second gear, or been frustrated that Russell hasn’t found more suitable showcases for his talent: The Union is not only the best thing either of them have done in years, it’s a vibrant, rootsy template for how many of their peers (coughBillyJoelandRodStewartcough) can get their mojo back.
What’s the difference? It’s true that some of the songs have more bite, including the rave-ups “Monkey Suit” and “A Dream Come True,” as well as the winking first single “If It Wasn’t for Bad,” but there’s also plenty of room for sleepy ballads like “The Best Part of the Day.” What really sets it apart is T Bone Burnett’s production, which strips back the synthetic varnish that both artists have leaned on too often and exposes the knots and whorls in their finely aged voices – and, more importantly, captures some of the best-sounding piano tracks either of them have laid down in the last 30 years. It’s obvious that a lot of money went into The Union – Booker T. Jones, Jim Keltner, Brian Wilson, Neil Young, and Robert Randolph are some of the guests – but it all went into capturing pure performances, rather than dressing them up. This is a loose, vibrant record, and while it isn’t entirely free of the schmaltz that’s plagued Elton’s later albums in particular, it’s obvious that having Russell as a foil (and Burnett’s strong, minimalist hand in the studio) has brought out the best in him. The musical fruition of a friendship struck up 40 years ago, The Union brings Elton John and Leon Russell full circle – and should bring a smile to the face of anyone who’s been holding out hope that both artists would find their way back to what made their music special. (Mercury 2010)