I’ve found these last few months inundated with musicians from the past crawling out of the woodwork and releasing new albums: David Bowie’s final work, Blackstar; Suede’s latest, Night Thoughts; and now Elton John releasing his 32nd album, Wonderful Crazy Night.
I don’t know about you, but I was never much of an Elton John fan; I never went looking for his music, unlike Bowie, Suede, The Smiths, and several other British musicians whose music I would relentlessly hunt down. The most exposure I had to Elton John would have been as a result of his work in animated films, creating magnificent soundtracks for The Lion King and The Road To El Dorado. Armed with this minute amount of musical information, I gave Wonderful Crazy Night a listen.
From the get go, Elton John surprised me with how groovy, how funky he sounded. From the album’s opener, I couldn’t help but nod appreciatively. John may be 68 years old, but his voice hasn’t changed a bit, with a soulful rumble to it. I couldn’t help but feel slightly astounded, because while the music is upbeat and optimistic, John’s vocals are a little restrained, which is something I hadn’t thought him capable of. After all, this is the man who performed the almost sickeningly happy soundtrack for The Road to El Dorado, as well as the man who sang “Can You Feel The Love Tonight.”
As it turns out, he remains firmly in control of his emotions across the opening half of Wonderful Crazy Night. The opening half wouldn’t be out of place alongside blues rock artists like Gary Clark Jr. and The Stone Foxes. It’s clear that he’s holding himself back — he’s not as explosive as he’s obviously capable of being. For me, there was a sense of anticipation just bubbling beneath the surface as I waited for John to let his emotions explode outwards, for his voice, which is already a strong one, to really let loose.
Thankfully, it does. After that opening half full of slower ballads, the Elton John I grew up listening to finally comes out to play. “Looking Up” signals this shift with a bouncy piano and an old school rock-and-roll feel to it. John’s voice morphs into a more theatrical, more emotive style of singing. If it wasn’t for the gnarly guitar, you could picture “Looking Up” in a Disney movie.
The following track, “Guilty Pleasure,” tops its predecessor and is by far the album’s standout song, with a jangly guitar line reminiscent of The La’s and a pop-y bassline all overlaid with clapping and John’s voice demonstrating both power and an infectious verve. This is the most fun song on the album, featuring incredibly silly, yet endearing, lines like, “I can’t whistle, never really could,” and, “Am I the lover you’d like my love?” This is the song that really made me fall in love with Wonderful Crazy Night, and with Elton John in general.
Sadly he returns to the slower paced, bluesy realm of the opening half. Being even more balladic isn’t a problem in itself, it’s just that his more expressive songs, particularly “Guilty Pleasure,” are so much more entertaining.
While the album isn’t perfect (pacing issues mean John’s restrained performance in the opening half and the tail end can make the middle of the album seem a little jarring), it’s still a very good introduction to Elton John, as well as proof that musicians from the past are just as capable as any of entrancing and attracting a new generation of listeners today.