There have surely been few greater demonstrations of the maxim that “absence makes the heart grow fonder” than the hysteria which greeted the return of David Bowie earlier this year. His last album, 2003’s Reality, had met with middling reviews and vanished quickly from the charts. This year’s The Next Day, in contrast, hit the number one on iTunes in over 60 countries and its Mercury Prize and Q Award nominations seem certain to be the opening in a torrent of accolades. In truth, The Next Day wasn’t markedly different from the music Bowie had been making 10 years ago; what had changed was that Bowie’s vanishing act had created a vacuum within which his myth could grow and people could miss him. When it comes to legendary acts like Bowie (or The Rolling Stones, to use another recently returned example) it seems that new material can prove to be a distraction for many listeners who would rather remember and celebrate them as they were in their prime.
Elton John has certainly never given listeners a chance to miss him. Four years is the lengthiest gap he’s left between studio albums – gaps which tend to be filled with soundtracks, musicals, guest appearances, a lot of touring and an inordinate amount of media attention. His music has long been a part of our collective identity while he as an individual seems as much a part of our landscape as the Queen. As a result, it could be argued that we take this prodigious talent who has created so many pop standards for granted. In concerts he knocks out the hits and his biggest chart successes in recent years have been retrospective in nature – his Good Morning To The Night remix album with Pnau hit Number 1, a feat none of his studio albums have achieved since 1989. Yet if he’s obliging enough to largely give audiences what they want, he’s also canny enough to mine this nostalgia in his current work. As The Diving Board’s Voyeur puts it, he’s “committed to connecting the old ways to the new”.
It’s no surprise, then, that The Diving Board (his 30th studio album) is billed as a return to the sound of Elton’s early days. While the largely sparse piano, bass and drums instrumentation may deliberately echo this, however, in truth the series of strong albums he’s released since 2001’s Songs From The West Coast have all followed the blend of blues, country and Americana which made his name back in the day. Heck, 2006’s The Captain & The Kid was a direct sequel to 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. The Diving Board, then, might make great capital out of its self-consciously retrospective sound but it’s actually very much business as usual. Fortunately ‘usual’ for Elton these days consists of very good things indeed.
In keeping with the sense of nostalgia and recollection which underpin the album, opening track Oceans Away is a simple yet stately ode to the ‘Greatest Generation’ – those who went off to war and left many behind “beneath a little wooden cross oceans away.” It’s a moving testament to the lyrical abilities of Bernie Taupin (Elton’s long-time collaborator) for whom themes of ageing and time have been increasingly large concerns – perfectly matching Elton’s musical return to his roots. This is clear in first single Home Again, a poignant ballad which appeals both musically and lyrically to a sentimental longing for the past. Can’t Stay Alone Tonight, meanwhile, is an effortlessly catchy return to earlier classics like I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues and its nagging chorus is a future certainty on Radio 2.
If there is little here which surprises, it’s not all a case of re-treading old ground: My Quicksand features what is apparently Elton’s first piano solo on record, a jazzy middle-eight which is indeed impressive. The superlative piano playing continues on The Ballad Of Blind Tom, about the musical prodigy Blind Tom Wiggins. It may be a bluesy companion piece to Songs From the West Coast’s The Wasteland (about Robert Johnson) but it’s nonetheless dazzling, with Elton’s in-character line “play me anything you like, I’ll play it back to you” drawing parallels with his own virtuoso abilities (also highlighted on three brief improved instrumental interludes, Dream #1-#3).
Still, the album’s appeals to the Americana of Tumbleweed Connection are obvious, from Elton’s affected Southern twang to lines about going to “eat a T-bone steak, watch a picture show for a dollar and a half” (A Town Called Jubilee). The rich history which The Diving Board draws on also slightly undermines it: there is certainly nothing bad here yet so much of it has been done by Elton before. When you’ve been around for as long as he has, though, that almost goes without saying – a fact picked up by Taupin in Voyeur which documents the difficulty of continuing to find new inspiration. Nothing here will change anybody’s mind about Elton John; but then again, if anyone needs convincing after 45 years of some of the best pop music ever made they’re probably a lost cause. That The Diving Board is very good is an achievement in itself, even if it seems certain to be quickly forgotten by listeners eager to hear Your Song for the billionth time.