1. This is one of the best albums of 1972.
2. This is Elton John’s best album.
It’s rather unfortunate that Elton John has built a reputation from his most famous singles that he’s one of those artists that all you’ll ever need is a best of compilation. And the singles that he’s most famous for—tributes to Marilyn Monroe or soundtracks to the most well-known documentary of African wildlife—would have you believe that he’s little more than a piano player with a penchant for ballads. Honky Chateau gainsays both stereotypes. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road often gets the most attention in Elton John discography, but in my opinion, Honky Chateau touches on almost the same number of styles (sans progressive rock and glam rock, but let’s be honest, there are better artists for either genre than Elton John), offers the same number of highs in half the time (and these ones are higher), and in the words of George Starostin, “this is the last Elton record where his lightheartedness and joyful enthusiasm isn’t yet overshadowed by pomposity and rigidness.”
“I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself” and “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time)” are both testament to Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s ability to hit opposite sides of the happy-sad spectrum simultaneously, a feat which few other artists can do. You wouldn’t expect a song with the title “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself” by an artist who’s publicly stated that he’s dealt with depression and bulimia to start with its bouncy, jazzy piano, or to suddenly turn into a vaudevillian-like tap dancing number. But there’s a genuine sadness to be found, despite a casual reference to wanting to sex Brigitte Bardot—listen to how his voice climbs higher and higher to the verge of breaking on the last word of, “Think I’ll buy a forty-four / Give them all a surprise” or how the arrangement calms down when he launches into a falsetto at the end of the chorus, “I’d like to see what the papers say / On the state of the teenage blues.”
“Rocket Man” similarly hits a number of styles. For example, it starts as a soul number with Elton John by himself, but one-by-one, all the session musicians have their say—Dave Glover’s melodic bass (starting at the second half of the first verse) to David Hentschel’s adding extra effects to give the track a psychedelic undertone. And yeah, some of Bernie Taupin’s lyrics are the stuff of maudlin redundancies, “I miss the Earth so much / I miss my wife / It’s lonely out in space,” or “Mars ain’t the kind of place / To raise your kids / In fact, it’s cold as hell / And there’s no one there to raise them / If you did,” but Elton John sings the song with a beautiful conviction—delivering the latter verse in such a deadpan manner to the genuine sadness in his melodic inflection, “I’m gonna be high as a kite by then.” And yes, critics have likened this one with David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” due to thematic similarities, but frankly, David Bowie trades sincerity for bombast, while Elton John finds a fine middle ground.
Like every other Elton John album, it’s not perfect. Unlike “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself,” “Mellow” is everything the title suggests and more than 5 minutes’ worth at that. “Amy” is essentially “Honky Cat” with violin instead of horns and nothing instead of a chorus. “Salvation” is a little too overblown for my tastes. As on Tumbleweed Connection, Elton John takes to American styles for “Slave” (a country song about slaves) and “Hercules” (a country rocker about cats), but the problem is other artists have done either style more convincingly, though I will say that Elton John’s backing vocals in “Hercules” are the best on the album, second only to “Rocket Man.” But there’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” whose constant omission from Elton John compilations is reason enough to seek out Honky Chateau. As allmusic’s Stewart Mason’s rightly notes, “Taupin’s lyric avoids overt emotional manipulation and overblown language in favor of a somewhat uncharacteristic emotional directness,” seen in the wonderful use of repetition in the pre-chorused, “I thank the Lord there’s people out there like you,” as well as the chorus itself, aided by Elton John’s melodic bounce “While Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters / Sons of bankers, sons of lawyers / Turn around and say good morning to the night.” Meanwhile, Davey Johnstone’s mandolin that comes in partway through is melodic warmth, adding color to a city I always think of in black and white.