An Album for the Weekend: Madman Across the Water, Elton John (1971)

I had the good fortune to see Sir Elton John in concert a few years back. He was touring to support an album called Peachtree Road, which never got much notice, being something of a late-career add-on. But during that concert, he ended a song, got up from his piano bench, and walked back to where his four background singers were standing. He made a grand gesture of thanks, something between a high-five and a prayer, and returned to the front of the stage to speak with the audience.Madman

That moment has stuck with me because it’s testimony to Elton’s lifelong insistence on a high standard of musicianship. He got the sound he wanted, and he was overjoyed. (If there was ever another side of that coin in his musical moods, I never heard about it.) He was also generous with credit, as I saw in that very public display at the concert hall in Orlando.

Reach back to the beginnings of his career, and you can see where it all started. Madman Across the Water, Elton’s fourth album, is as musically tight and adventurous as anything he has done since. And no one knows better than Elton, who mentions it at nearly every show, that his musical genius is only half the story. Bernie Taupin‘s lyrics heave a lot of psychic weight. The man could word up a picture, and Elton could sing it. Witness the most famous song from the album, “Tiny Dancer“:

Blue jean baby
L.A. lady
Seamstress for the band
Pretty eyed
Pirate smile
You’ll marry a music man

I don’t know about you, but that conjured up a complete picture of a woman in my young mind.

But the whole package deserves a late night headphone listen. “Levon” is among the best indictments of generational bullying in all of rock. “Holiday Inn” provides a three-day-shadow look at life on the road, and “Razor Face” has a nervy backstory notion that we, too, will be old one day. Perhaps the most intriguing song on the album is “Indian Sunset.” What’s an English guy doing getting into the head of a Sioux about to be set upon by the cavalry? But listen to it a few times, and you see that Elton and Bernie’s point of view wasn’t English, American or Indian. It was human. (The linked version is Elton alone on piano; it’s just as moving as the full-orchestra album track.)

This was Elton before the glitzy glasses and outrageous outfits. But even when those days started, we knew the music was at the center. We got the sound we wanted, and we’ve been overjoyed for a long time.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr except for album art and linked music

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