Elton John – Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

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It’s not often that Rolling Stone gets the album right the first time around and gets it right so righteously, so to Jon Landau open for me (highlighted by yours truly):

First things first. This is one of Elton John’s best albums. He hasn’t tried to top past successes, only to continue the good work he’s been doing. And he’s succeeded, even taking a few chances in the process. The record is devoid of the gimmicky rock numbers from the Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player phase. It isn’t weighted down with the overarranging and overproduction that marred so much of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It sounds freer and more relaxed than Caribou. His voice sounds rough, hoarse, almost weary. But that only helps make him sound more personal and intimate than in the past.

It is by now beyond question that Elton John is a competent and classy entertainer. Few people who have achieved his popularity have succeeded in maintaining his standards for performance and professionalism. And in his relationship to his audience, Elton not only gives of himself in terms of output and energy but he does it graciously and generously. Unlike his American counterparts (many of them neither as talented nor as popular), he hasn’t soured on success.

But the question remains — is Elton John something more than a great entertainer? I’m not sure. For one thing, despite his ability to sound profound, he seldom projects a tangible personality. After so many albums and tours, few people have any sense of him at all. And for all his productivity and enthusiasm, he remains a largely passive figure, the creator of music that one can get comfortable with but which is never challenging or threatening.

Elton John can be a master of the sleight of hand. The arrangements make it seem like there are substantial melodies underneath the tracks — but almost nothing demands repeated listenings. Similarly, he always sounds like he’s singing up a storm, but his voice glosses over the material, reducing most things to an uninteresting sameness.

And that’s basically it. Elton John has never had enough melodies to saturate through an entire album to satiate me (and the only instance where he did, he went ahead and made it a bloated double album anyway), and by 1975, it was clear that he had very few original melodies left. The obvious highlight is centerpiece and lone single, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” whose only flaws are a plodding drum that pervades most of the album and undeserving of being almost 7 minutes in length. But there are tons of earcandies: the surprisingly fast-paced piano hook, the backing vocals echoing “Sugar bear,” the way Elton John manipulates “Didn’t you dear” so that it sounds like a natural rhyme, the wordless vocal hook that caps the chorus. And Elton John sells it, because he lived the material: it’s no secret that he’s tried to kill himself before and the way he sings “Damn it! Listen to me good! / I’m sleeping with myself tonight,” in particular, is packed with so much visceral anger that it’s easily one of the best moments in his discography.

But as Jon Laudau writes, this is still one of Elton John’s best albums and as everybody else notes, this is still the first album to debut at #1 on the U.S. charts, regardless of the album’s relative deficit of melodies. Songs like “Bitter Fingers” and “Writing” get by on the power of the instruments alone, while “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” evolves effortlessly from folk to rock (with the album’s best guitar riff that more than makes up for John’s inability to present a memorable tune). And though “Gotta Get a Meal Ticket” and “Better Off Dead” are relative throwaways, they’re also much-needed punchy numbers; particularly dig the ungainly gallop in the drums of the latter.

But the closing two tracks is where the album truly shines. “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” is easily the best song on the album (yes, even better than “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”); reminiscing about Elton John’s relationship with Bernie Taupin as it comes to an end (“We wrote it and I played it / Something happened, it’s so strange this feeling”) with what’s both the best melody on the album, the best singing on the album (“Did we, didn’t we, should we, couldn’t we?”; “Don’t you find / We all fall in love sometimes”) and the best color on the album, from electric guitars to what sounds like the occasional autoharp, to simpler stuff like the piano cadences after “When even your best friend says.” And instead of fading out as you’d expect it to, it climaxes instead and segues perfectly into “Curtains,” which ain’t much, but it fits fine.

The reissues packages Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy with three bonus tracks. The first two are superfluous: I’ve never liked “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” and Elton John’s cover isn’t better, regardless of what John Lennon says. Like his cover of the Who’s “Pinball Wizard,” Elton John stretches the track to twice its original length (6 minutes?!), but unlike his version of “Pinball Wizard,” he at least earns it this time with some stylistic shifts: ie. the well-executed instrumental passage starting at the 2:43 mark or the brief reggae excursion starting at the 3:30 mark. “One Day at a Time” is another John Lennon cover, this one from 1973’s Mind Games, which I admit to not having heard, but if this cover is just a straight-forward copy, than it’s just another reason to keep pushing back on that. But the upbeat and orchestrated “Philadelphia Freedom,” a non-album single that hit #1 on the U.S. charts (whereas “Someone” only managed to reach #4), should have definitely been included on the proper album.

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