What Have You Done For Us Lately, Elton John?

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In What Have You Done For Us Lately? we examine the recent output by legendary artists. Yeah, we’re happy when they return with a new album… but really, just how happy are we? We’ll gauge their recent output, take a hard look and see how it has held up… and maybe help you to find a few gems that you overlooked.

There’s a certain breed of artists who came to prominence in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, who enjoyed a great amount of success with trailblazing pop records — artists who seemed to capture the zeitgeist for an unusually long amount of time. At a certain point, they began to coast, their new albums feeling more like calling cards to let you know they’re still there.

As for Elton John, even he has been harshly critical of some of his more recent albums. Give the man some credit, though: unlike many of his peers, he’s put out at least one classic album since 2000 (Songs From The West Coast). In his spare time, he single-handedly resurrected the career of his idol (Leon Russell), and also contributed to four other Top 5 albums. This week, the bitch is back with a new album, The Diving Board. Let’s have a look at what he’s done for us lately.

The Big Picture (1997)

Elton John the big picture

The quintessentially ignorable Elton album, The Big Picture was overshadowed by Elton’s “Candle in the Wind ’97″ single, which he recorded in honor of his fallen friend, Princess Diana. As is often the case with even Elton’s weakest albums, it has one really good song: check out “Something About The Way You Look Tonight.”

Critical Response: Lukewarm. Entertainment Weekly gave the album a C+, while the L.A. Times gave it two stars, saying the album “lacks character.”

Sales: The album peaked at No. 9 on the album charts and went platinum, but that was mostly Elton’s star power doing the heavy lifting. Compare that to his Lion King soundtrack, released just three years earlier, which went diamond for sales of over ten million.

What stuck: Elton always plays a bunch of new songs live following the release of said album; “Something About The Way You Look Tonight,” “If The River Can Bend” and “Love’s Got A Lot To Answer For” were the ones that made setlists on his 1997 tour. By the following year, it was only “Something About The Way You Look Tonight.” And by ’99, the album was absent from setlists. None of the songs were included on his 2000 live album, One Night Only: The Greatest Hits, though “Something About The Way You Look Tonight” made his Greatest Hits 1970-2002 collection.

Songs from the West Coast (2001)

Elton John Songs From The West Coast

If you’ve missed this album because you ignore Elton’s post ’70s/’80s records, smack yourself in the head. Now. Then pick yourself up and listen to this album. On the other hand, it came after The Big PictureElton John & Tim Rice’s Aida, Elton’s scores to The Muse andThe Road To El Dorado, so it’s understandable that no one was expecting an adult-leaning album that held up to his greatest material of all time.  How did Elton get his groove back? Two things happened: His longtime songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, wrote a killer first single, “I Want Love,” likely influenced by his third divorce a few years earlier. Taupin’s lyrics on that song cut as deeply as anything he’d ever penned: “I can’t love, shot full of holes/Don’t feel nothing, I just feel cold/Don’t feel nothing, just old scars/Toughening up around my heart.” The video didn’t feature Elton — the only person to appear was Robert Downey, Jr. lip-synching the song, while walking around an empty mansion, in a performance that holds up to some of hisfinest work.

The other thing was, Elton discovered Ryan Adams’ solo debut, Heartbreaker, and got a huge dose of inspiration from it. (The two later kicked off a brief bromance, coming together for one of the best episodes of CMT’s Crossroads ever.) John decided to record an album to analog tape over just a few weeks, as he had done earlier in his career. It paid off: “American Triangle” (about Matthew Shepard, a gay teen who was brutally murdered in a hate crime in 1998), “Original Sin,” “The Ballad Of The Boy In The Red Shoes” and “This Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore” are among his greatest songs. The latter video was also shot sans Elton, with Justin Timberlake taking an early stab at acting, playing Elton in the ’70s (and yes, that’s Pee-wee Herman making a cameo as well).

Critical Response: Most writers saw this as a return to Elton’s earlier era. Rolling Stone gave it four stars, while Entertainment Weekly gave it an A-, calling it “his most nuanced, openhearted, and headlong collection in years.”

Sales: Despite the accolades, it only went gold, for sales of 500,000.

What Stuck: “I Want Love” and “This Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore” have been in his setlists in the years since the album came out; both songs also made the Greatest Hits 1970-2002 collection.

Peachtree Road (2004) 

Elton John Peachtree Road

For the follow-up to Songs From The West Coast, Elton went south for Peachtree Road, an album inspired by the state of Georgia. In a similar vein as its predecessor, the album lacked the big singles and videos that West Coast had, and didn’t get nearly as much press as that album.

Critical Response: Lukewarm. The L.A. Times gave it three out of four stars, and Entertainment Weekly gave it a B-, saying that the album’s “few attempts to rock out are tame and hokey.”

Sales: Like West Coast, it hit the gold mark.

What Stuck: Not much. “Answer In The Sky” and “Porch Swing In Tupelo” haven’t made the setlists since 2005, “Turn The Lights Out When You Leave” since 2006.

The Captain & The Kid (2006)

Elton John The Captain And The Kid

Referencing this album as a sequel to 1975′s Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy was a good way to get some extra attention for the record. On the other hand, it then also will force comparisons to that album, and none of the songs here hold up to “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”

Critical Response: Very good, actually. Rolling Stone gave it four stars, and Entertainment Weekly gave it an A-, calling it his “best album in decades.”

Sales: Poor. It wasn’t even certified gold.

What Stuck: Not much. “Postcards From Richard Nixon” hasn’t made setlists since 2006, ditto for “Just Like Noah’s Ark,” though “The Bridge” has been played as recently as 2008.

Elton John & Leon Russell – The Union (2010)

Elton John Leon Russell The Union

This was a labor of love for Elton, and it showed. Leon Russell was slipping into the “Where Are They Now?” file, so lifelong fan Elton brought him back in a big way. He also was likely behind Leon’s 2011 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That’s all well and good, but The Union wasn’t just a charitable effort — it was a damn solid album. “If It Wasn’t For Bad,” written and sung by Russell, was one of his best songs in decades. “Hey Ahab,” written by Elton and Bernie Taupin, would have fit in on Tumbleweed Connection.

Critical Response: Excellent. In Rolling Stone‘s five-star review, David Fricke says, “Each goes back to what he first did best. Then they do it together.” England’s Independent also gave it five stars, calling the album’s “Gone To Shiloh” (featuring a Neil Young cameo) “a haunting civil war tale that’s like an equivalent of ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.’”

Sales: Again, not well. Elton’s fans, sadly, seem only interested in hearing him revisit his past.

What Stuck: Three years later, Elton still plays “Hey Ahab” and “Gone To Shiloh” on occasion in his live shows.

ELTON’S BONUS TRACKS:

2004: Elton dueted with Ray Charles on his “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” from Charles’ posthumously released Genius Loves Company, which hit No. 1 and won eight GRAMMYs. While oftentimes legends re-recording their hits as duets, can be pointless, there’s a poignancy to this recording: it was said to be Charles’ final session for the album.

2009: He played piano on the title track on Alice In Chains’ comeback album, Black Gives Way To Blue. On an album haunted by the drug-induced death of the band’s late singer Layne Staley, Elton surely empathized, and his piano on the song was a beautiful touch to the band’s wave goodbye to their fallen comrade.

2010: In addition to Alicia Keys, John Legend, Rihanna and Fergie, Elton guested (keyboards and backing vocals) on Kanye West’s “All of the Lights,” from his opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

2012: Although he didn’t have to do any work for it, there’s also the Pnau Vs. Elton John album, Good Morning to the Night, in which Pnau (an Australian dance music duo) created new songs out of elements from Elton’s older songs. (Pnau’s Nick Littlemore is now a member of Empire of the Sun; they discussed their friendship with Elton with Radio.com recently.) “Sad,” for instance, draws from “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” and “Friends,” as well as lesser known songs “Nice And Slow,” “Crazy Waters” and “Curtains.”

2013: Most recently, he played piano and sang backing vocals on Queens Of The Stone Age’s “Fairweather Friends,” from their …Like Clockwork .

THE VERDICT: Is Elton ever going to top the music he created during his ’70s heyday? Not likely. But you can never count him out. When he and Bernie Taupin are inspired, greatness follows. So if you really think you’re a fan, pick up some of his more recent material: it’s a good reminder that sometimes middle age (OK, let’s be frank — old age) is as interesting, or more so, than being young and wild.

- Brian Ives, Radio.com

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