Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Elton John

  • Elton John [Uni, 1970] B
  • Tumbleweed Connection [Uni, 1971] B-
  • Madman Across the Water [Uni, 1971] C
  • Honky Chateau [Uni, 1972] A-
  • Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player [MCA, 1972] C+
  • Goodbye Yellow Brick Road [MCA, 1973] B
  • Caribou [MCA, 1974] B+
  • Greatest Hits [MCA, 1974] B+
  • Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy [MCA, 1975] B
  • Rock of the Westies [MCA, 1975] A-
  • Here and There [MCA, 1976] C
  • Blue Moves [MCA, 1976] C
  • Greatest Hits Volume II [MCA, 1977] B+
  • A Single Man [MCA, 1978] C
  • Victim of Love [MCA, 1979] C-
  • Jump Up! [Geffen, 1982] B
  • Elton John's Greatest Hits, Volume III, 1979-1987 [Geffen, 1987] B
  • The One [MCA, 1992] C+

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Elton John [Uni, 1970]
A lot of people consider John a future superstar, and they may be right; I find this overweening (semi-classical ponderousness) and a touch precious (sensitivity on parade). It offers at least one great lyric (about a newborn baby brother), several nice romantic ballads (I don't like its affected offhandedness, but "Your Song" is an instant standard), and a surprising complement of memorable tracks. But their general lack of focus, whether due to histrionic overload or sheer verbal laziness, is a persistent turnoff. B

Tumbleweed Connection [Uni, 1971]
Between the cardboard leatherette jacket and the cold-type rotogravure souvenir booklet is a piece of plastic with good melodies and bad Westerns on it. Why do people believe that these latter qualify as songpoems? Must be that magic word "connection," so redolent of trains, illegal substances, and I-and-thou. Did somebody say Grand Funk Railroad was a hype? What about this puling phony? B-

Madman Across the Water [Uni, 1971]
The two decent songs here--I refer primarily to the melodies of "Tiny Dancer" (just how small is she, anyway?) and "Levon"--clock in (with lots and lots of help from Paul Buckmaster) at 6:12 and 5:37 respectively. In other words, they meander. The others maunder as well. Ugh. C

Honky Chateau [Uni, 1972]
John is here transmuted from dangerous poseur to likable pro. Paul Buckmaster and his sobbing strings are gone. Bernie Taupin has settled into some comprehensible (even sharp and surprising) lyrics, and John's piano, tinged with the music hall, is a rocker's delight. Also, he does have a knack for the hook. If like me you love "Rocket Man" despite all your initial misgivings, try "I Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself," about the state of teenage blues, or "Slave," about slavery. A-

Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player [MCA, 1972]
Dear Elton: If you're trying to claim it's all Bernie's fault, just hold on. One half of a songwriting team can always bail the other out of rock and roll as competent and (not counting that new sexist streak) unexcessive as this, as each of you proved on Honky Chateau. Maybe Bernie refuses to outgrow his pistol envy. But that's no reason for you to make the music not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper. C+

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road [MCA, 1973]
Two LPs ago, Bernie Taupin passed on his way from obscure banality to clean, well-lighted banality to write a batch of imaginative lyrics, and set to those lyrics John's music sounded eclectic but not confused. Too often now it seems to chatter on anonymously. The title cut is good, "Bennie and the Jets" is great, side four is good-to-great, and a few other songs here would probably benefit from more exclusive company, but this is one more double album that would make a nifty single. B

Caribou [MCA, 1974]
I give up. Of course he's a machine, but haven't you ever loved a machine so much it took on its own personality? I was reminded of my first car, a '50 Plymouth. Then I decided Elton was more like a brand-new Impala I once rented on a magazine's money. Then I remembered that I ended up paying for that car myself. Yes, I hate the way he says "don't diszgard me" too, but "The Bitch Is Back" is my most favorite song. B+

Greatest Hits [MCA, 1974]
I don't agree that singles are Elton's metier--his method is too hit-or-miss to permit such a surefire formula, and some of his best stuff ("Your Sister Can't Twist," "Solar Prestige a Gammon") has proven too wild or weird for a&r/p.d. consciousness. There are no clinkers here, and I suppose if you only want one of his albums this is it. But it's stylistically ragged, two of its four great cuts are also on Honky Chateau, and I'd just as soon hear the first side of Caribou. B+

Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy [MCA, 1975]
Says B.T. as E.J.: "I once wrote such childish words for you." Do they feel guilty about it? Have they put away childish things? What's happening to our children when a concept album about the hard times of a songwriting team hits number one on all charts the week it's released? Does it matter that the five good songs on this one aren't as catchy as the five good songs on the last one? Probably not. B

Rock of the Westies [MCA, 1975]
First time I read the lyrics I got angry, but not at he lyrics, which are Bernie's best; I thought the new band's machine-tooled hard rock and Elton's automatic good cheer was negating their toughness and clarity and complexity. But I was wrong. Intentionally or not, the marimba accents of "Grow Some Funk of Your Own" and the faked-up Caribbean inflections of "Island Girl" elaborate the songs racial ironies, while the band's fiery temper on "Street Kids" and "Hard Luck Story" cuts through John's arbitrary ebullience. Now if only Bernie furnished every song with a perfect out like this one, from "I Feel Like a Bullet": "You know I can't think straight no more." A-

Here and There [MCA, 1976]
I had a syllogism worked out on this one. Went something like a) all boogie concerts rock on out, b) Elton is best when he rocks on out, c) therefore Elton's concert LP will rank with his best. So if this sounds like slop (concert-slop and Elton-slop both), blame Socrates--or find the false premise. C

Blue Moves [MCA, 1976]
None of the few rockers on this impossibly weepy and excessive double-LP match anything on Rock of the Westies. Or, as my wife commented in all innocence of who was on: "What is this tripe?" C

Greatest Hits Volume II [MCA, 1977]
The two previously-unavailable-on-LP originals here are peaks, but the two covers are dippy. Plus the lead cut from Caribou and two hits from Rock of the Westies and leftovers from 1971 and 1976 and the climax of Captain Fantastic. Is this product necessary? Depends on who's doing the needing. B+

A Single Man [MCA, 1978]
Like the homophilophile I am, I'm rooting for Elton, but though this isn't as lugubrious as Blue Moves, it comes close, and the flat banalities of new lyricist Gary Osborne make Bernie Taupin's intricate ones sound like Cole Porter. Personal to Reg Dwight: Rock and roll those blues away. C

Victim of Love [MCA, 1979]
What's most depressing about this incredibly drab disc is that Elton's flirtation with Eurodisco comes a year too late. Even at his smarmiest, the man always used to be on top of the zeitgeist. C-

Jump Up! [Geffen, 1982]
You say you don't care that it's his best album in seven years? I swear, you young people have no respect. This little guy was a giant, helped keep us sane back then, and though it's true he hasn't come up with a "Honky Cat" or "Bennie and the Jets" ("I Am Your Robot" might qualify if there were still AM radio), it's gratifying enough that after all these faithful years he's started to get good songs out of Gary Osborne (gunning for a Frank Sinatra cover on "Blue Eyes") as well as Bernie Taupin (who really shouldn't ever write about politics). B

Elton John's Greatest Hits, Volume III, 1979-1987 [Geffen, 1987]
The bitch is gone, presumably forever. Never an artist you looked to for aesthetic principle, John provided a nice ersatz hard rock before punk and metal split that alternative down the middle. So he sunk to the depths and then resurfaced as an '80s pop singer. No point comparing him to Springsteen or Costello when he's competing with Barry Manilow, to whom he's infinitely preferable, and Billy Joel, who gets the decision on aesthetic principle. His only classic of the period is "Sad Songs (Say So Much)," which is much faster than most of these hits. It's not especially sad, either--and "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" isn't a blues. B

The One [MCA, 1992]
Fun automaton, floundering has-been, or unnoticed fixture, he hung in there, so that 1992 was the 23rd consecutive year he put a single in the top 40. Since Elvis himself only got to 22, this statistical aberration merits a tribute, and though I was disarmed by the news that he'd not only come out but was donating all singles royalties to AIDS research, I decided to take it as a long overdue hint to ignore his albums. Unfortunately, the first single was an all-too-well-plugged Eric Clapton feature. Then came an AIDS ballad drenched in midtempo melodrama, followed by a title tune that's just as soupy with less content. So here's hoping somebody at MCA likes "Sweat It Out," a fast dance number about vanquishing the forces of reaction. Inspirational Verse That Saves Me a Review: "No more Tears for Fears/Give me tears of rage." C+

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