Tuesday, November 02, 2021

"Don't Go Taking My Mask!" – Elton John's Lockdown

The legendary transatlantic piano balladeer Elton John, whose hitmaking career spans five decades, is joined on his latest album by a diverse complement of collaborating artists and producers. 

The Lockdown Sessions’ includes rap and hip-hop elements, electronic dance music, heavy metal, acoustic rock, and doleful piano ballads. 

Elton is prominent in some tracks, while he assumes the role of subtle mood lighting in others to let his all-star cast of collaborators shine.

Elton appears as first writer in the credits for half of the songs, while his long-time lyricist, Bernie Taupin, is only credited on track one, ‘Cold Heart’, which is a dance remix produced by PNAU. The song combines sections from three of John’s mega-hits of yester-decade; Elton contributes verse parts from ‘Sacrifice’, and Dua Lipa sings a lightly reharmonized refrain from ‘Rocket Man’, invisibly grafted to a couple of lines from ‘Kiss The Bride’. The track feels light and wistful, juxtaposing dreamy and rueful lyrics and a laid-back dance groove – we immediately get the sense of an album aware of the gravity of Elton John’s career, but also respectful of new artists – this album may not be a final handing over of the torch to a new generation, but it’s solidly in the era of the transition negotiations.


Nicky Minaj brings her instantly recognizable vocal timbre and phrasing to the second track, ‘Always Love You’, although she is credited under her real name, Onika Maraj, and strikes a more restrained tone than what made her alter-ego famous; she’s the adult in the room after Young Thug’s jarringly explicit rap rhymes.


‘After All’ sets a subtle metallic vocal effect on Elton and his duet partner for the track, Charlie Puth, against a marching ‘You Win Again’ backbeat and a liberal spreading of the “Billy Shears” cadence (♭VI-♭VII-I). The singers’ voices melt into duelling electronic lead solo instruments in the second half of the song.


‘Chosen Family’ is part rousing show song, part charismatic Christian megachurch sermon about the unity of humanity, with Rina Sawayama leading the vocal arrangement, and Elton supplying later verses and backing vocals in the chorus. This is a loop song with a repeating cycle of chords which follow the familiar and unfailingly moving I-V-VI-IV formula of ‘Let It Be’, ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ and ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’.


‘The Pink Phantom’ starts out in a ‘Benny And The Jets’ groove, becoming increasingly hypnotic as the Gorillaz wisp in and out of view like smoke in Elton’s cabaret bar. This song feels fresh and ethereal, setting us up for a strikingly moving blast from the pop past in the next track.


‘It’s A Sin’ starts with just a piano, the yearning voice of Years & Years leads us into the story world of this anthemic defiant reclamation of the traumatic institutional oppression of less enlightened times. Lifting much of its sound design from the original, this cover version feel like a reverential homage rather than a distinctive reimagining. This is Elton John doing karaoke to the Years & Years cover, mixed by Global Reach into a slightly heavier interpretation of the high-energy high-80s original from the Pet Shop Boys. This is a thoughtful and intriguing addition to the album.


Fasten your seatbelts for the next track: a cover of Metallica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters’. Even arriving just months after Metallica’s covers album, ‘The Metallica Blacklist’, which featured their original along with fully four new covers of this, their best known and most popular song, this track, is probably going to become the definitive version of this muscular metal standard. Leaving this version off the Blacklist is a bit of an oops for James Hetfield and co, even though Robert Trujillo plays bass on the track. Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers plays bass. Globally renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma plays cello (!), hot off his very authentic headbanging bliss-out in the audience of Led Zeppelin’s Kennedy Center Honors celebrations nearly a decade ago. But all that talent and skill pales beneath Miley Cyrus’s devastating main vocal. This is her ‘Hallelujah’. Beginning from a startling, warm, brooding bass register and then jumping two octaves for a shredded metal chorus, this is a technical tour de force that feels emotionally symbiotic with the source material and intimately engaging for the listener. Absolutely stunning.


Next up,‘Orbit’ is a 2000s bassy house anthem featuring Elton’s lead vocal in partnership with co-writer SG Lewis’s smooth production, an earworm riff borrowed from Cutting Crew’s ‘(I Just) Died In Your Eyes Tonight’, perhaps via Mika’s more upbeat borrowing of it in ‘Relax, Take It Easy’, strings from ‘Groovejet’, and a smattering of of every nodding deejay’s delight: the gratuitous high-pass filter break.


‘Simple Things’ is a toe-tapping country ballad, with wistful steel guitar and vocal accompaniment from Brandi Carlile, and a rueful lyric that carries the weight of experience: “Simple things are hard to learn”. This track feels more emotionally present than the earlier laidback rock swing of ‘Learn To Fly’ earlier in the album; although they are both in the same musical universe, ‘Simple Things’ was co-written by Elton, and that connection to the material comes through. The chorus leaps out of the smooth country texture of the rest of the song and high up the sunlit Nashville mountains thanks to a surprising semi-tone modulation above the root chord.


‘Beauty In The Bones’ is a country song with a high-speed drum accompaniment that comes in and out to keep us guessing and making it sound more like Savage Garden than one might expect from the posse of country songsmiths on its writing roster. This is followed by ‘One Of Me’ is a hypnotically repeating hip-hop song prominently featuring Lil Nax X, who has first author credits on this track under real name Montero Hill.


‘E-Ticket’ sounds like Meatloaf singing a very good version of ‘Saturday Nights’s Alright For Fighting’Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam fame provides backing vocals, and he also co-wrote the song, credited under his real name, Edward Severeson II. This song will get stadiums on their feet, especially if they like wailing to ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ – and who doesn’t?


‘Finish Line’ is a rousing gospel song based on another classic chord progression that will be familiar to fans of Lionel Richie and Cheryl Cole alike. Stevie Wonder joins to provide an inimitable vocal accompaniment and a de rigueur harmonica break.


‘Stolen Car’ is an epic track featuring Stevie Nicks of the Fleetwood Mac. The song starts as a halting and haunting trip into regret, based on a transmuted sequence from ‘Your Song’ which alternates with a high-energy Springsteen anthem to motorbike into the sunset to. Quite the ride.


‘I’m Not Gonna Miss You’ features vocals from Glen Campbell from beyond the grave. As the final song on the album, and coming straight after a track that vividly calls back to Elton’s first hit, this song’s placement fairly heavily suggests a final stepping off stage – at least until the next album.


Elton has said that the recording process for ‘The Lockdown Sessions’ reminded him of his early career as a session musician. He has spanned his full range of genres and styles here, as well as modes of performance and arrangement. Writing new songs, referencing and reviving high points from a gigantic and perennially popular repertoire, and melding it all with a pantheon of fellow giants and fresh performers and producers has led to an emotionally complex album that is hard to evaluate as a whole – and perhaps that’s the point. Elton’s rather like a sculptor, but then again, no, a man who makes potions in a travelling show... Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean: these are his songs, and these ones are for you.



John Weston


Image: 'The Lockdown Sessions' Official album Cover

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