Let's face it, we all have off days. Musicians are no exception. The only problem with that is their off days usually result in poor music. Case in point; Caribou.
In 1974, Elton John was riding high. His previous three albums had reached number one in the States. The latter of those three, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, was the most successful album of 1973, spawning 4 top ten singles. Everything he touched turned to gold. This was the scene during which Elton retreated to the Caribou Ranch to begin the recording of his next album.
I like to be able to describe albums in one word. Simplistic yes, but it's effective and it means I don't have type as much. Caribou is an "uninspired" album. This is not surprising, seeing as how the band only had five days available, but it is disappointing. On previous albums, Elton had maintained a certain standard of excellence. This is not the scenario on Caribou. The album was hastily done, and mostly assembled in post-production. Gus Dudgeon would win the Grammy for the Producer of the Year for Caribou and it is easy to understand why. "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me" greatly benefits from the backing vocals placed in after the song was finished. Less successful are the horns placed throughout the various songs, as in "You're So Static." However, I give Dudgeon a pass on that seeing as he was trying to do something different with the Elton sound. Caribou would not have been unlistenable without his work, but it would certainly have been a huge step down for Elton John.
There are all sorts of reasons why Caribou is lackluster, but there is one simple explanation. The songs just aren't that good. Oh sure, there are some shining moments. "The Bitch is Back," "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me," and "Ticking" are three very good songs, and I'll come back to them later. However, those three make up less than a third of the total song count, and even the presence of those classics can't save Caribou. Ever heard of " Pinky," or "Grimsby," or "I've Seen The Saucers?" Here, think about it for a few minutes……No? I thought so. Those three songs are from Caribou, each one as sloppy and clichéd as the other. One song on the album, "Solar Prestige A Gammon" consists of made up words, supposedly written in homage of The Beatles' "Sun King." It's a good thing Elton was such a popular artist at the time; songs like these would have destroyed the careers of many other artists.
When it comes to discussing the lyrics of an Elton John song, Bernie Taupin's name always will come up, seeing as he has written the great majority of Elton's lyrics over the years. When Taupin is good, he is very good. "Rocket Man," "Tiny Dancer," "Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters" -- these are songs that have stood the test of time. However, on the downside, Taupin has written some god-awful lyrics. "Grimsby" is a song written in honor of the English city. "Pinky" is pure sap, with man and his wife sitting in bed on a cold morning, enjoying a picturesque breakfast moment. There is even a song titled "Stinker" which is quite ironic. I'll leave why that is for you, the reader, to figure out.
Despite all this, the album is not without a few gems. Those songs are the three previously mentioned, "Bitch…" "Don't Let The Sun…." and "Ticking." The latter is a powerful tale of a young student driven to murder. The lyrics bring images of Columbine to mind, giving the song an emotional impact decades after it's recording. This is one my personal favorite Elton tunes for two reasons. One, I enjoy the darker tone not seen often in Elton's work, and two, the recording. Too often Elton's song are garnished with orchestral arrangements, or other unnecessary instrumentation. On "Ticking", we get to just hear Elton and his piano. This is easily one of Elton's most powerful songs. "Bitch" is the sequel of sorts to "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting." There is some blistering guitar work from Davey Johnstone, and at the end, there's even a sax solo and some interjections from the Tower of Power horn section. Finally, "Don't Let The Sun…" is poignant ballad, featuring some very good Taupin imagery. The hooks in the chorus bring you in, and the song doesn't let go.
There was one and one only factor as to Caribou's success. In 1974, Elton was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, rock stars in America and Britain. If there was a time to come out with a lousy album, this was the right time.