When Elton John announced his farewell tour back in January 2018, it’s impossible that anyone thought he’d still be playing dates prior to his retirement way into 2023. Yet a global pandemic (and now a recent hip injury) has meant that his retirement has had to be put on hold.
As the title would suggest, The Lockdown Sessions are the result of Elton deciding to record a new album during lockdown instead of playing shows. What’s intriguing about it is that it harks back to his early days as a session musician, collaborating with an impressive number of guest stars (some completely online, some in person but following government guidelines) and in many cases, letting them take the spotlight.
Elton’s enthusiasm and passion for new music is something that’s always set himself apart from his peers. All too often, these collaboration albums are more of an excuse for the artist to hang out with his mates – on The Lockdown Sessions, as well as legendary names like Stevie Wonder, Eddie Vedder and Stevie Nicks, Elton has also employed younger names like Dua Lipa, Charlie Puth and Olly Alexander.
The results are a bit dizzying. Some of the tracks are exactly what you’d expect to find on an Elton John album, while others very much take you by surprise (hands up whoever expected Young Thug to be rapping “Takin’ off your skirt, this the night I make you squirt” in between some plaintive verses by the former Reg Dwight). Yet it’s those more unexpected moments that make The Lockdown Sessions an unexpectedly enjoyably record.
Take the opening track, Cold Heart, with Dua Lipa. At first, it sounds like, despite the title, a straight cover version of one of Elton’s old hits Sacrifice. Then, as the song unfolds, it’s more of a clever mash-up of several of his old songs (the aforementioned Sacrifice, Rocket Man, Kiss The Bride and little known album track Where’s The Shoorah). The two stars’ voices work well together and the Australian trio Pnau give the track a smooth, low-key dance beat. It works quite brilliantly.
Chosen Family will already be familiar with anyone who’s heard Rina Sawayama‘s debut, and it’s reinvented here as a duet with Sawayama and John – it’s impossible not to be touched by the lyrics inspired by queer teenagers looking for a sense of belonging after being shunned by their blood families. It’s a theme that the TV show It’s A Sin also explored, and Elton and Years & Years‘ cover of the Pet Shop Boys classic is also revisited on the Lockdown Sessions. It doesn’t quite have the impact of the original, but Olly Alexander’s voice is undeniably impressive.
Some tracks don’t quite work as well – Always Love You’s trap beats and explicit raps from Young Thug and Nicki Minaj is a brave attempt to push Elton out of his comfort zone, but it ends up sounding a bit awkward. Learn To Fly, a collaboration with Texan band Surfaces, is a bit too bland and soft-rock to make any real impression, and Charlie Puth’s After All sounds strangely dated, like it’s a cut from Elton’s early ’80s wilderness years.
Yet Elton’s restless nature and sense of adventure means that there’s a lot to enjoy on The Lockdown Sessions. The Metallica classic Nothing Else Matters is tackled, together with a guest list including Miley Cyrus, Yo-Yo Ma and Robert Trujillo, and ends up sounding at least the equal of the original. Best of all is The Pink Phantom, from last year’s Gorillaz album Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez is an eerie mediation on mortality featuring a soulful vocal from Atlanta rapper 6lack.
With age, Elton’s vocal appears to have become slightly more mannered – on certain tracks, he comes perilously close to sounding a bit like Vic Reeves‘ comedy pub singer character. That doesn’t detract from The Lockdown Sessions though – an album that could have easily come off as a millionaire’s vanity project with his rich mates is actually a surprising, creatively rich endeavour.