Thursday, August 11, 2011

Top 50 Albums, #47 - "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy"

For me, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” represented the zenith of Elton John-mania. Elton was my favorite artist for about five years, and even today I would argue that his string of early to mid-seventies hits: “Honky Chateau,” “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player,” Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” Caribou,” “Fantastic,” and “Rock of the Westies” – can stand alongside the best string of seven consecutive albums that any artist has come up with.

In the fall of ’74, Elton embarked on what was his biggest U.S. tour to date. “Caribou” had just been released, and during the summer you couldn’t turn on AM radio without hearing one of two huge hits that were spawned from that record – “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” and “The Bitch Is Back.” And if you were going to choose two songs that defined the Elton oeuvre, you couldn’t do better than those two. The former was a beautiful demonstration of what he could do with a ballad, and the latter proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Elton could rock with the best of them.

During that tour, Elton announced that his next album had already been recorded, but that it wouldn’t be released until the following spring. He shared the album's long, unusual and somewhat whimsical title, and indicated that it would be his most personal album, telling the story of his writing partnership with Bernie Taupin, and their rise to the top of the pop world. It sounded interesting, and different than anything he’d tried before. And whether intended or not, the early announcement was a brilliant piece of marketing strategy, because long before the album hit the stores, there was an incredible buzz about it, and even though its ultimate release date was less than a year since the release of “Caribou,” you could call it “long awaited” and not get laughed out of the room. Adding to the frenzy were two #1 singles in early 1975 that didn’t appear on any album – Elton’s remake of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (which made few forget the original), and “Philadelphia Freedom” (a remarkable single, one of the best of that year or any year).

When it finally came out in late May of 1975, "Captain Fantastic" became the first album in the history of the Billboard charts to debut at #1. And while there would be no #1 singles this time around, that was just fine because this was truly an album – a collection of songs that were clearly intended to be listened to as a whole, and together were far greater than the sum of their parts (which is not to say that the single, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” is not a great song).

In a piece of rock trivia that probably few other than me will appreciate, “Captain Fantastic” was the last record review that Jon Landau wrote for Rolling Stone (although he did contribute columns for several months afterward), before deciding that being Bruce Springsteen’s manager, producer and confidante was going to be his full-time job. As were all of Landau’s reviews, it is a cogent, well written piece, and it provides a good glimpse into how Elton was viewed by the critical establishment during his peak (actually, Landau’s review is much kinder than most).

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.

And that was about as good as it would get, on the critical end. If Elton had a critical champion, it was probably Robert Christgau, and even he began the piece on Elton he wrote for the first edition of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll with “There is something wondrous about Elton John, and something monstrous…”

But let’s set all of that aside. After all, this is about what I think, not anyone else, and in my book “Captain Fantastic” is a great album, and Elton’s best.

Landau’s comment about overproduction on Elton’s records is well taken; Gus Dudgeon was definitely less than subtle when it came to making records. But from the first cut of “Captain Fantastic”, the title song, it becomes apparent that John was going for a more streamlined sound – not anything that would spawn comparisons to Rick Rubin-type minimalism, but certainly more restrained than anything one heard on previous efforts. And the title cut is one of Elton’s best songs, starting with little more than an acoustic guitar and muted electric piano, and then building to a terrific crescendo with the backing of the full band.

What sets “Captain Fantastic” apart from other Elton albums is its consistency, but my favorite songs, in addition to the title cut, are:

“Bitter Fingers” – I can still remember listening to this one over and over on the day I bought the album. This is one of the record’s most autobiographical songs, telling the tale of how he and Bernie broke into the business, writing jingles at a time when they knew they could be doing much, much better.

“Tell Me When the Whistle Blows” – Elton would later record with Thom Bell, but this is the song that really stands as a tribute to Bell’s work. Hard-rocking soul, with a string/horn arrangement that sounds unlike just about anything he’d recorded before.

“(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket” – one of Elton’s hardest rockers, and one of his best.

“Better Off Dead” – Taupin’s wordplay at its best, and Elton at his humorous best with the music and vocal.

“Curtains” – You may doubt me on this one, but just close your eyes for a moment, and imagine this song being sung by Bryan Ferry, with the backing of mid-seventies era Roxy Music. Don’t tell me that Elton couldn’t get a little adventurous, when the occasion demanded it.

And “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” A remarkable, beautiful song, and probably the best ballad he’s ever written. Dramatic, just bordering on overwrought: but never quite crossing the line. And so to close, let’s turn back to Landau:

On that one, both Elton and Bernie disprove the criticisms made here. There's no illusion of saying something, they are saying something; there's no illusion of a superb performance but a superb performance itself; no imitation of quality but rock of very high caliber.

As long as Elton John can bring forth one performance per album on the order of "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," the chance remains that he will become something more than the great entertainer he already is and go on to make a lasting contribution to rock.

Lasting contribution? I’d have to say “yes.”

"Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy"/May 1975

Produced by Gus Dudgeon

Track Listing: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy/Tower of Babel/Bitter Fingers/Tell Me When the Whistle Blows/Someone Saved My Life Tonight/(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket/Better Off Dead/Writing/We All Fall In Love Sometimes/Curtains

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