It’s not his best album – I’d give that prize to Honky Chateau, an underrated album if there ever was one – though I’ll call this one his second best.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is a remarkably easy album to diagnose – it’s a double album that should have been a single album. Furthermore, it’s also a remarkably easy album to treat – people who bring up The White Album in comparison to this are doing so more out of a sense of obligation, because that one is the standard by which all double albums must to be judged, apparently. The thing is, with The White Album, if you ask anyone else what their single disc playlist looks like, their answer will look totally different than yours, and I’m sure somewhere, there’s a person who chose every single track you did not pick. The opposite is true with Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: ask to see someone else’s single disc playlist and you’d probably be best friends with them after remarking upon the similarities.
Regardless of its flaws, I think that people who are unfamiliar with Elton John should start here because in a way, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road acts more like a career-spanning compilation than it does an album. For one thing, it contains more singles than any other Elton John album, and all of them are rightful classics (regardless of whether they’re overplayed or whether they were recast in an obvious cash-grabbing move decades later are besides the point). Furthermore, you get a handful of tracks that are fan-favorites and live staples. Finally, you also get Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s worst tendencies, from the former dabbling in genres that he had no business in to the latter venting out his problems with the female form while using Elton John as his mouthpiece.
Enough chit-chat; let’s tackle this thing song-by-song:
1. Remember when I said that Elton John dabbles in genres he had no business in? Well, if you thought progressive rock was on that list (as I did before going into this album), you’re about to have your mouth shut. “Funeral for a Friend” was written when Elton John wondered what he would want played at his own funeral (the obvious answer is “Egyptian Shumba”). Like that concept suggests, and as most progressive rock numbers go, it does take itself a little too seriously, but the first three and a half minutes do manage to whizz by thanks to a huge dose of melody injected into the synths. After that, Elton John shows us piano rock in a way that he hasn’t really done before—his previous albums might’ve been labeled that, but they never rocked in the same way the second half of “Funeral for a Friend” does. That transitions to “Love Lies Bleeding,” which features a great riff from Davey Johnstone (by my count, it’s the third best riff on the album), while Elton John’s vocals and lyrics are at their most hurt—“Love lies bleeding in my hand / It kills me to think of you with another man.” To paraphrase CapnMarvel, the album opener to end all album openers.
2. ”Candle in the Wind” is everything you would want in an Elton John song: an impressive melodies in both Elton John’s voice and piano and Davey Johnstone’s guitar, impressive backing vocals (I’d like to think the fact that the version rewritten for Princess Diana reached #1, not because of the subject matter, but because of these two things. I like to dream, don’t I?), and some of the best lyrics Bernie Taupin has ever submitted. He often dabbled in maudlin subject matter (“Rocket Man”) or misogynistic (oh, we’ll see them momentarily), and I’m cynical enough to think that the ones here aren’t sincere, but that doesn’t make them any less effective (“Goodbye, Norma Jean / From the young man in the 22nd row / Who sees you as more than something sexual / More than just our Marilyn Monroe“).
3. “Bennie and the Jets” is the best song on the album. The best song of his career too, probably. People are lazily bringing up Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Clubs Band in comparison to this one on the sole basis that there’s a fake audience involved. The fact is nothing in that album (or most any other album, for that matter, if you think it’s just my less-than-warm attitude towards Sgt. Pepoers is coloring my favor here) does what “Bennie and the Jets” does. It’s the emptiness between each chord that Elton John strikes and how it’s filled, whether it’s rests, whether it’s his singing, whether it’s the syncopated drumming or whether it’s the synth riffing – it sounds huge. And this is the best use of audience noises ever, because it puts you in the song, from the false start that signals them to their appreciation of Elton John’s soloing (something that is very rare).
As a side note, Axl Rose was apparently specifically inspired by “Bennie and the Jets” to become a singer. That’s actually understandable – the singing in “Bennie and the Jets” is creative as all hell, with Elton John stuttering his way through “B-b-bu-bu-buh-Bennie,” the sizzling way he holds the sound in “Jets,” or else the wonderful way he breaks and inflects his voice for the word, “Magazine.”
4. Elton John’s vocal melody in the chorus of the title track is easily one of the best in the album (second to “Candle in the Wind” only). This song managed to be one of his highest charting singles (#2 in the U.S., #6 in the U.K.) is testament to that fact.
5. ”This Song Has No Title” would probably be better named “This Song Has No Songwriting.”
6. ”Grey Seal” first appeared as a b-side to “Rock and Roll Madonna” in 1970. This version speeds that one up, slaps an intro made out of a-thousand-miles-per-hour arpeggios in front of it (that Elton John would be so happy about, he’ll recycle in three years’ time in his cover of “Pinball Wizard”) and an outro that’s just as sonically gargantuan. Unfortunately, none of these things really solve the original’s faults – the band just sweep them under the rug and hope nobody notices. Bernie Taupin’s lyrics don’t mean a damn thing here (he’ll later admit, “I hadn’t a clue what I was writing about”), and the three distinct parts (the verse, the chorus, and the bridge between those two) feel just that – distinct.
7. I think “Jamaica Jerk Off” gets a little too much flak – everyone knows there are better places to look for reggae than an Elton John album, but at least the chorus sounds like everyone’s having a good time, despite the fact that the band were scared for their lives while in Jamaica. Personally, I think it could desperately benefit from some retitling, and having it cut it off at the 2-minute mark; the thirty seconds that directly follow is one of the most useless bridges I’ve ever heard.
8. ”I’ve Seen That Movie Too” is the best song on the album that was not released as a single (somehow, someone commissioned “Funeral For a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding” as the a-side to a single five years after the fact). The lyrics are actually inspired – you couldn’t accuse this ballad’s lyrics of being maudlin as you could other Elton John ballads because they’re hidden in an elaborate movie metaphor. As opposed to “Grey Seal,” or “All the Girls Love Alice,” Elton John helps transition between verse-to-verse or verse-to-the instrumental section through some jazz-inspired colors. The instrumental section is a really nice one too, with Davey Johnstone meshing in wonderfully with the string section – in its first half, Johnstone’s guitar genuinely sounds like its a weeping violin. I think that the song could’ve stood to lose one of its repeated verses, but I think the biggest detractor is Nigel Olsson, who is mostly interested in keeping time here, but because the tempo of the song is so slow, his contributions feel useless.
9. Elton John’s singing is sincere enough that I’ll keep “Sweet Painted Lady” around, despite Bernie Taupin’s dumb anti-prostitution lyrics.
10. I was hoping that something with the title “The Ballad Of Danny Bailey (1909-34)” would be more interesting than it actually is.
11. There are a couple of things worth hearing in “Dirty Little Girl.” There’s the controlled phrasing in the guitar, there’s the nice lead-in to the chorus, and there’s some counterpoint going on during the chorus too (during the “Rub her down scrub her back” bit).
Regardless, I can’t stand the song and I’ll let George Starostin say why: “I don’t mind misogynic lyrics as a rule, but ‘Dirty Little Girl’ outbitches everything Mick Jagger and Frank Zappa ever tried to do with lines like ‘Someone grab that bitch by the ears/Rub her down scrub her back/And turn her inside out/’cause I bet she hasn’t had a bath in years’. Add to this Elton’s ultra-angry and very sincere-sounding tone on the song, and you get yourself something which I’d probably censor on the radio with no remorse if I had the power to.”
12. ”All the Girls Love Alice” has a really good riff (the second best on the album, in fact), but like “Grey Seal,” there’s no thought given to the transition between the verses and the choruses, and each switch can cause whiplash. Moreover, the lyrics are just dumb – it’s about a sixteen year old girl that’s so confused about her own sexuality that she gets it on with all the girls in the class. It could’ve been turned into a critique of some sort against bad parenting (“a simple case of Mummy-doesn’t-love-me blues”), but the most poignant line on the album (“It was only last Tuesday they found you in the subway dead”) is immediately downplayed by an entire verse of dumb rhymes. Elsewhere, I knew full well what Paul McCartney meant when he said, “She was just seventeen / If you know what I mean,” but I have no idea what Bernie Taupin’s talking about when he writes, “What do you expect from a chick who’s just sixteen / And hey, hey, hey, you know what I mean.” No, I don’t. I frankly don’t want to know either.
13. ”Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘N’ Roll)” is as dumb as its title suggests, but it’s also as fun as it suggests too. Some of the details that the band adds are inexplicable – before the 1:41 mark, the backing vocals are just kind of there while the organ feels like it’s just trying to update the standard instrument formula of the 50s (and failing). At that point though, we’re treated to a less-enthusiastic vocal crescendo that’s lifted straight out of “Twist & Shout,” and a “Wee-ooh-woo” bit that I swear I’ve heard elsewhere too (but have no idea whether it came before or after its release). Oh well, still fun.
14. ”Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” is my second favorite song on the album. It’s kind of funny that other glam rockers – David Bowie and Ian Hunter – were inherently heterosexual pretending to be homosexual, while Elton John was the complete opposite. Regardless, he was always destined to be a glam rocker – he has the voice for it (“Ma, tell me when the boys get HEAH!” or how he actually shouts out the lyrics in “I may sink a little drink and shout out, ‘SHE’S WITH ME!’”, not to mention the “Alright” and “Saturday” mantras), not to mention the fact that he had some of the oddest fashion choices on stage the world had ever seen. Nigel Olsson’s drumming smacks as loud as drunk kisses do and Dave Johnstone lays down the album’s best riff. Listening to it while walking around makes me feel like I’m a leather-jacket-sporting badass, and listening to it while drunk makes me wanna dance.
15. Exists for one line only, “Comic book characters never grow old.” Otherwise, “Roy Rogers” gets the same criticism as “Jamaica Jerk Off:” everyone knows there are better places to look for country than an Elton John album (not named Tumbleweed Connection, but even I have my doubts about that one).
16. Due to the way Elton John launches his voice when singing the title’s words and the addition of the banjo, “Social Disease” is the best track on the final side of the album. Unfortunately, that compliment means as much as telling a girl that “She’s tall for her height.” It means nothing, in other words.
17. Basically “Goodbye” without the sentiment – the first ten seconds always tricks me into thinking the rest of the song is going to be just as pretty and the title of the song tricks me into thinking the song’s going to feature harmonies rivaling that of “Rocket Man” or “Candle in the Wind.” Bastards.
—– —– —– —– —–
The good outweighs the bad. It’s like that in real life too.