Saturday, April 12, 2014

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road at 40

Over the years I've come close to buying Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on CD, but never pulled the trigger until now, with the release of a special 40th anniversary addition.  The new double-CD extravaganza features a remastered version of the original album, a set of songs from the album covered by other artists (produced by Peter Asher), and part of a concert recording from 1973, when Elton was playing a lot of these songs for the first time.

We'll get to the packaging in a moment, but let's start with considering where the album falls in Elton's pantheon.  It came smack dab in the middle of his mid-seventies hot streak, when just about everything Elton touched turned to gold (or platinum).  It was a huge hit.  It featured three hit singles, including the one ("Bennie and the Jets") that got him invited to Soul Train.  It includes what is probably his best known (but certainly not best) song, "Candle in the Wind," in its original incarnation.  But even with all that, what really gives the album its identity are the lesser known, "album" cuts, several of which sound as good (if not better) today than they did back then.  I'm not prepared to say that it's his best album, but along with Honky Chateau (which came before) and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (which came after), it's certainly a contender for that title.

Back in the day, double albums were treated as an event, even if most of them were made "double" through the addition of material that probably should have stayed in the studio archives (in the CD era, nearly every release is the equivalent of a seventies era double album, which may explain why so many modern releases are candidates for track skipping).  But the material on Yellow Brick Road is consistently strong, and remarkably diverse.  The album begins on an odd note with an 11 minute twofer that begins with "Funeral for a Friend," a five minute dirge that seemed really cool in 1974 but really just obscures the strength of "Love Lies Bleeding," which certainly belongs on the list of least known great Elton John songs.  Also on that list would be "I've Seen That Movie Too" and "The Ballad of Danny Bailey," both of which showcase Elton's piano playing, but in different settings - the former a ballad that Frank Sinatra himself could have covered, and the latter being a melodramatic but effective tale of a Dillinger-era gangster.

In an album full of highlights, the high point just might be the 1-2-3 punch that begins with "All the Girls Love Alice," continues with the raucous rocker "Your Sister Can't Twist (But She Can Rock and Roll)" and concludes with "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," which is probably the best flat out "classic rock" song that Elton has ever recorded.  But you get the point - this is a really strong album, and while it might not be the best double album ever recorded (Exile on Main Street, London Calling and The River are all stronger, and that's just off the top of my head), but it deserves to be included in any conversation about the great double albums.

My only complaint?  In the packaging, they've deleted the lyrics and accompanying artwork (see picture above) that helped make the original release so compelling.

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