The Big Picture
Universal Records, 1997
REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/28/2005
I admit it; I'm a music-aholic. Twelve steps won't do me any good, and I don't think there are any groups I can join to discuss my problem. What is the main symptom, you ask? For me, it is binge-purchasing. It's tough for me to say no to music, and as a result my collection grows larger and larger by the day. As a result, there are a good number of albums that have gotten lost in the mix, doomed to remain relatively unlistened to unless fate intervenes. Enter The Big Picture.
This sucker has been sitting in my CD tower for years, after Dad passed it on to me. Even after Elton John rocketed to one of the top spots in the prestigious "Jeff's Favorite Artists" list, it still didn't get a spin in the ol' stereo. Most likely, the situation would have continued, but I happened to stumble upon a debate on an Elton John forum regarding Peachtree Road and The Big Picture. Seeing as how I couldn't discuss any material from The Big Picture, it was high time that it got a listen. While this isn't a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, Elton turns in an enjoyable performance that's only hindered by an outdated sound.
Face it folks, who does pop better than Elton John? Sure, the man has dabbled in other forms of music, such as rock, disco, and hell even some prog rock. However, pop has been his calling card, and The Big Picture does nothing to buck the trend. Strong melodies abound, the only weaker efforts coming with the two closing songs, "I Can't Steer My Heart Clear Of You," and "Wicked Dreams." The second of those two songs is particularly disappointing; it never really changes tempo and fails to excite where previous tracks succeed. Luckily, the rest of the album more than makes up for the two duds at the end.
Usually, the best songs on an Elton album are the singles. There are of course exceptions to the rule, and The Big Picture is one of those. While the number one single "Something About The Way You Look Tonight" successfully fuses elements of rock, pop, and gospel together, there's another song that does it even better. "If The River Can Bend" has to be considered among Elton's best of the '90s; the vocals are powerful, the string arrangements recall the glory days of Madman Across the Water, and echoes of "Burn Down The Mission" permeate throughout the wild, guitar-screaming final minute.
The onslaught of stellar album tracks continues with numbers such as "The Big Picture" and "January." In the former, there's a hint of things that were to come with Songs From The West Coast; the track reminded me very much of "I Want Love." "January" has the honor of being one of the more unique songs in Elton's later catalogue. For roughly four minutes, we are treated to essentially three different songs combined into one. There are glimpses of the past with very "Philadelphia Freedom"-likestrings, as well as hints of folk and classic rock to boot.
So far there's been nothing but praise for The Big Picture, so what's the catch? Well, this album was recorded in 1997, but it might as well have been 1987. It doesn't seem that a human drummer was used for these sessions, and the synthesizers certainly got a workout. The result is a sometimes-muddy sound that weakens songs such as "Live Like Horses." This track features another strong melody from Elton, and a brilliant lyric from Bernie Taupin, but it drowns under the weight of all the excess noise. To hear this song the way it should have been recorded, check out the version featuring Pavarotti. In its current form, "Live Like Horses" stirs up a few feelings, in the latter it's a grippingly powerful song.
I won't hold the sound too much against The Big Picture: there are too many good songs for that. However it does weaken the album to a certain degree and that's a shame.