Ironic thought of the day: it turns out that Sir Elton John—you know, the piano rock icon?—despite having created a public image that indelibly associates him with the piano, has never actually made a piano-driven record before now. That’s right: it has taken the 66-year-old thirty studio albums before he finally released one that brings his primary instrument front-and-center. This definitely adds a deeper level of meaning to the title of his latest effort, The Diving Board.
Indeed, while most of our favorite Elton John hits over the years have been his piano-heavy songs—and while some of our all-time favorites go back to his earliest records where he leaned a bit more heavily on that instrument—in fact, Sir Elton has been turning most of his creative energy over the years to staying ahead of the curve, crafting rock- and pop-friendly recordings in an attempt to stay current (with varying levels of success, it should be noted). It just so happens that the piano has been hanging around all this time, and it also just happens that that’s what the fans have loved best over the years, because that is what seems to define him as an artist.
Apparently, he got the message, and this year set out to craft a record that fully commits to this concept. (In other words, he jumped off the metaphoric diving board with both feet.) He re-enlisted the help of the incomparable T-Bone Burnett (who produced 2010’s The Union) for the production helm; he kept the arrangements simple, accompanied mostly by bass and drums (played by Raphael Saadiq and Jay Bellarose, respectively), with only a few appearances by guitars, horns and backing vocals along the way; and he drew upon the steady lyricism of long-time collaborator Bernie Taupin, all in an effort to create an album that truly reflects the version of Elton John his fans have grown to love. The result is Sir Elton’s most focused, consistent and impactful record in years.
The best aspects of the record are all the things you’d expect: incredible piano work throughout, thoughtful lyrics, several iconic choruses—and Sir Elton’s vocals are both consistent and surprisingly strong throughout. The opening track “Oceans Away” sets the stage perfectly with a meaningful, understated melody spotlighting only piano and vocals, the two instruments that remain the star performers throughout the record. Other high points on the album include “Can’t Stay Alone Tonight,” “Take This Dirty Water” and “Mexican Vacation (Kids in the Candlelight)”, the latter two of which comprise the album’s rare louder moments thanks to the inclusion of a backup choir. “Home Again,” the album’s lead single, is perhaps also the record’s strongest cut, thanks in part to a powerful chorus with lyrics that stand among the most poignant Sir Elton has ever sung: “If I’d never left, I never would have known / We all dream of leaving but wind up in the end / Spending all our time trying to get back home again.”
That’s not to say the album is flawless. “My Quicksand,” for example, is a bit too melodramatic for its own good, and “Oscar Wilde Gets Out” damages its own impact by trying to pack too many words into the story. These and perhaps a couple of others could just as easily have been left off the track list, but because they weren’t, they cause the album to last just a little beyond its optimal run-time—almost as if once Elton John jumped off The Diving Board, he swam in the water just a little too long. By the time the six-minute title track comes around to close the album, the impact is more likely to be lost because listener is suffering from ear fatigue (yes, folks, it can happen—even with an icon like Elton John).
Flaws noted, the very best thing about this album—and the thing that sets it apart—is the simple fact that this is quite possibly the most “Elton John” record that Elton John has ever made. (I know that sounds weird, but I think you know what I mean.) As talented an artist as this man is, it has still taken him thirty albums to craft one that is totally committed to expressing who he is as an artist and performer. The Diving Board may not be the absolute best of his career, but it certainly could be the most meaningful. Sir Elton has not taken a dive into something new, but rather has taken a leap of faith by recording a record that is perhaps more true to himself than any other. For that reason, this record is a must-have for any fan.