Saturday, December 22, 2012

Indistinct Elton: Songs That Ease Themselves Away Elton John’s Songs From The West Coast

The Good: Some decent lyrics
The Bad: Musically unimaginative, Thematically overbearing
The Basics: Generally lyrically and musically disappointing, Songs From The West Coast is a series of indistinct easy-listening songs that add up to a blah album.

Lately, I've been finding one or two musical artists and getting a bunch of their music and listening it to, getting into artists who I have (historically) not owned anything by. I picked up Songs From The West Coast by Elton John because I have generally liked his singles and I thought this would be an album that I would have a very pure listening experience with; none of the titles were recognizable to me. As it turns out, I think "I Want Love" might have been on a Target commercial I once saw. Otherwise, my listen was pretty virginal. This was also my first Elton John album I've listened to.

Were it not for the fact that I know I like other Elton John singles, this might have been my last Elton John album.

With twelve tracks, Songs From The West Coast is a collection of songs written by Taupin and set to music by Elton John. So Elton John plays the piano and wrote all the music for the album, but he's singing someone else's words. And they don't always seem to fit. So, for example, on the opening track "The Emperor's New Clothes," the lines John is singing seem awfully long. While on the page, the lines say "Nightlife's a no win but nobody noticed / How we killed off the bottles / Looking good on the surface / The dogs barked and the house cat got old / We were Bonnie and Clyde / In the emperor's new clothes . . ." John sings it like it is three (not six) lines. In short, the song feels very lyrically crowded with a surplus of words to the length of the musical lines.

This is a fairly common problem on the album, with songs either sounding crowded lyrically (like "Mansfield") or tracks having a very open, epic feel to them, like "I Want Love" and "This Train Don't Stop There Anymore." I tend to prefer the latter, where the songs tell stories and give themselves enough time and space to develop them. The songs that don't feel cramped are enjoyable to listen to at the very least.

The problem is, this is largely an indistinct album in that the songs flow from one to another with little distinction, with little impression left by the prior or latter, giving the album a fairly generic vocal feel. Elton John has been playing piano for . . . well, forever. He's quite accomplished. But Songs From The West Coast does not offer anything that is accomplished. The songs are generic easy-listening pop tracks that have forgettable lyrics and almost universally forgettable melodies. I know that by this time tomorrow, I won't remember a single theme from this album save from "I Want Love" and "This Train Don't Stop There Anymore." In short, there is nothing distinctive here, there are no "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road"s on this album, no "Candle In The Wind."

The album's thematic strength is also one of its problems. John is out and proud and we're happy for him there. As one episode of Caroline In The City noted about the concept of John as anything less than flamboyantly gay, "creepy." We're glad for his social work and forthrightness. We get it. On Songs From The West Coast there are multiple songs about the angst of being homosexual ("American Triangle," "Original Sin," even an interpretive view of "I Want Love"). If anyone could - and should - present an enlightened and even joyful view of being out and proud, one would think John could do it. He's been through a lot and he's found love and happiness. This is not the album he expresses it on. Instead, he laments, "After everything I've ever learned / Me I carry too much baggage . . ." ("I Want Love").


On a weird note, one of the most positive things I can say about Songs From The West Coast is that the packaging is very cool. The liner notes open into one very long, surreal picture of Elton John in an diner with a kind of "Nothing Happens On My Street" feel to it.

I can only imagine that there are better albums by Elton John, based - if on nothing else than - on the simple fact that they would have recognizable and quality tracks. I'm all for artists putting out albums without a known single (my love of Dar Williams and Heather Nova is evidence of that), but they still have to make something worthwhile. I'm not finding that here.

The best track is the finale, the mellow "This Train Don't Stop There Anymore." The weakest of the weak tracks is the forceful "The Wasteland."

For other pop works, please check out my reviews of:
18 Singles - U2
Time Capsule: Songs For A Future Generation - The B-52’s
MTV Unplugged - 10,000 Maniacs


For other music reviews, please be sure to visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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