Saturday, November 05, 2016

'Madman Across the Water' Was Elton John's Finest

There can be no disputing the fact that Elton John has made a lot of albums in his life, and most of them have been pretty good.

I've always thought his best work came early in his career, when he was putting out two or three albums a year, and my personal opinion is that his very best album — "Madman Across the Water" — was released on this day in 1971.

I always liked the title song best. It was different from the others, not destined for release as a single or extended radio airtime. For that the album offered "Levon" and "Tiny Dancer."

The song had a haunting, symphonic sound that I really liked (credit Paul Buckmaster's string arrangements for that). I can't explain it any better than that. Much of the remainder of the album had the kind of pop sound for which John is probably best known — although several songs showed a flair and a poet's touch that one rarely finds on an album by a 24–year–old.

"Madman Across the Water" wasn't his most popular album. It did reach #8 on the Billboard chart, which was a lot better than it did on the U.K. charts, but there were several other albums that went to #1. Still, I kind of thought it had something for everyone.

As I said, I liked the title track the best, but there is no denying the popularity of the singles. "Levon" reached #24 in the United States, and "Tiny Dancer" made it to #41.

Again, though, there were many other Elton John songs that reached greater heights on the charts.

Interesting thing about "Tiny Dancer." Well, more than one.

For one thing, I think it had some of the most delicate piano playing I have ever heard, and it transitioned subtly yet beautifully into a broader, more complex arrangement.

"Tiny Dancer" wasn't a huge hit in the United States, and it wasn't even released as a single in the United Kingdom. Fact is, it enjoyed its greatest success in Canada, which was where John's career really got started, and Australia. "Tiny Dancer" made it to #19 on the Canadian charts and #13 on the Australian charts.

There was more great piano on "Levon," which reached #6 on the Canadian charts. It, too, offered John's unique piano style, and it was one of John's many collaborations with lyricist Bernie Taupin.

The natural assumption is that the song had something to do with Levon Helm since, reportedly, The Band was John and Taupin's favorite group in those days.

But Taupin claimed a few years ago that the song had nothing to do with Helm.

Jon Bon Jovi, who idolizes John, covered the song for a tribute album to the songwriting team. Supposedly, "Levon" is his favorite song

As I say, "Madman Across the Water" is my favorite Elton John album — although some, like "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," come close to matching it in my mind. It kind of runs out of gas near the end, but that's OK.

It's still great. Most of the tracks give the impression of being major works by themselves.

As, indeed, most of them are.

And when that is the case, you can overlook the misfires near the end.