Elton John: Wonderful Crazy Night (Warners)

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Elton John: Claw Hammer
Elton John: Wonderful Crazy Night (Warners)

Recently at Elsewhere we offered a kind of "how to buy Elton" column and, given the four albums we chose, concluded the shorthand might be, if longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin is on board you are pretty safe.

Well, Taupin's back for this one -- which comes in a terrible cover -- and producer T Bone Burnett has also signed on again. And so, running true to form, this is another damn fine Elton album.

The pity is, it probably doesn't matter.

This being his 33rd studio album means most people already have all the Elton in their life they might need and, given he hasn't troubled the singles charts in many years, he's not going to spring pop hits to drive album sales.

And yet Elton's fans seem to be loyal because this one went top 10 in Britain and number 11 in Australia and New Zealand. So the word had got out that it was another good 'un.

With his touring band on board and the man spinning out some exceptional piano playing, Wonderful Crazy Night is well in the same zone as his recent best (The Diving Board) but rather more upbeat.

There are pointed guitar solos and some power pop melodic passages from Davey Johnstone alongside the country-funk rhythms (check Claw Hammer with its lovely dreamscape coda from Elton), and Taupin's lyrics err towards a positively and emotional security which seems to reflect the singer's current state as a settled parent.

Taupin, at his best a storyteller -- as on Tumbleweed Connection, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Songs from the West Coast, The Diving Board -- writes on I've Got 2 Wings of the rural tent-show preacher Utah Smith who played electric guitar at sermons in the Forties to inspire the faithful: "The Holy Ghost was channeled through my guitar". It's another in Taupin's Americana stories which Elton delivers so persuasively.

Musical imagery and metaphors appear in a few places: notably on the two closers, Tambourine and the easy, optimistic, adult pop of Open Chord which sounds like someone has been listening to Enya

There are weak songs -- Good Heart is doubtless heartfelt but treads a very familiar lyrical and melodic path -- but uptempo rockers like the guitar-jangle Guilty Pleasures and Looking Up (again, his piano playing holding them together, with a New Orleans skew on the latter) would be welcome additions in any live set.

And Tambourine -- which sounds like classic Bernie-Elton from the Seventies, with a neat 12-string part by Johnstone, Hammond organ and a slide guitar solo which recalls George Harrison -- reminds you of just how much this duo can shuffle the decks between genres to come up with something of their own.

Although for most Elton John is an artist with an illustrious and hit-spinning past (except in the Eighties), he is increasingly making the case that the 21st century has found him on a plateau which is not dissimilar to that of the Seventies, albeit without the radio hits.

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