This must be a joke, you ask. It is…but you’ll like the punchline.
It goes something like this. The famed piano pop star Elton John has released his latest album Wonderful Crazy Night with a cover that looks like it was snapped with a cellphone, with garishly overlit flash, amateurish shadows thrown around, and Elton sporting a facial expression just a few decibels higher than “over-exuberant.” This is going to be a huge trainwreck of a mess.
Hardly so. In fact, Reg has orchestrated a clever bit of slight-of-hand. Your expectations are so dirt-scrapingly lowered by the lo-fi cover design, the effect of the actual album is amplified once you hear it. In short: don’t judge the cover. Elton and Bernie Taupin have released their best album in over twenty years.
I thought the two previous albums, The Union duo with Leon Russell and The Diving Board, were noble but dire efforts. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, Elton once again proved he could make it work with just him and the piano carrying that weight, but the songs felt a little too self-similar, and the albums as contained statements often felt hard to get through; a tour through a high-end museum where you knew there was talent in evidence, but everything was so important and drenched in amber and sepia, it only made you long for some color.
Wonderful Crazy Night is that color. Again produced by Burnett, this effort has seen him lighten up as well, applying a bit more ambiance to the sonics and a bit less of that dry, contained aesthetic that’s been his signature for the past decade. I suspect that he caught onto what Elton and Taupin were doing right from the start and decided to channel the dearly departed Gus Dudgeon through him instead. It works.
What also works: a beat! A ripping guitar! Those churchy, doo-wop background voices from yesteryear! Indeed, Davey Johnstone and Nigel Olsson return to the fold, as does longtime friend Ray Cooper, making this effort the closest we may get ever again to a reunion of THE Elton John Band. Still, none of this means a thing if the songs don’t work. For the majority of the disc, the dynamic duo of pop have eschewed the “talking old soldiers” of the previous records and have shaken out the sand from the platform shoes.
That’s not to say there aren’t ballads. “A Good Heart” reminds you this is the collective that gave us “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”. I would never claim that the new track bests its elder — probably an impossible task — but for the first time in a long time, the bloodline is evident. Better still, the big-strumming, hand-clapping “Guilty Pleasure” isn’t at all. “Claw Hammer” witnesses Bernie Taupin recapturing the lyrical muse that knocked Honky Chateau on its ear.
There’s an inexplicable decision made with the deluxe edition of the record. The final track, “England and America” is a rocker. No joke. And those John, Johnstone, Olsson harmonies get a right proper workout…but you have to buy the deluxe version to get it and “Free and Easy,” another bonus track. My advice? Go for it.
Having proved for years why they called Elton John the artist, Wonderful Crazy Night reminds us why he was (is) also a star.