Empty Sky

Elton John

Island, 1969


REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck


Hard to believe that a short pianist from a failed band would go on to have one of the most successful careers in rock. Today, Elton John is one of the most recognizable faces and names on the music scene, whether you like his music or not. Plays on Broadway, musical scores, a soon-to-be TV show based on his life and of course his albums all define Elton in 2006. However, back in 1969, all John had was his first album, Empty Sky.

A few months ago, we had a retrospective promoting the best debut albums in rock. I thought about writing up a review for Empty Sky back then, but truth be told, it wouldn't have been right, because despite a few interesting moments, Empty Sky resembles a normal debut record in the sense that it isn't very good.

Things get off to a promising start with the title track, a mature, semi prog-rock number. John demonstrates the range of his early vocals, shifting from a snarling, Mick Jagger/Leon Russell inflection to a lighter, gentle phrase or two. Actually, some of "Empty Sky" reminded me of Tommy, with the guitar swirls almost distant from the rest of the track. A bluesy jam closes things up -- listen to Elton attack the keys and you can see the immense talent he had.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Then things start to get a tad rough. The main problem behind most of the songs on Empty Sky is their lack of strong, Elton John-esque melody. This is understandable, considering this was the kid's first album, but that doesn't change the reality of how the album sounds. Some tracks get close to delivering an all around package; "Western Ford Gateway" spots one of the stronger refrains, and the music flows naturally, as opposed to "Val-Hala," which aimlessly seeks to find the right note. Not to imply it's out of tune, but the musicians don't sounds as tight. Of course, session musicians populate most of Empty Sky.

The song most Elton fans would recognize from Empty Sky would be "Skyline Pigeon." On a scattershot album lyrically from Bernie Taupin, "Pigeon" stands head and shoulders above the rest. Ruminating about leaving everything behind and "flying away," it's one of Taupin's best lyrics to come out of the early Elton John albums. While I prefer the version later recorded around the time of Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Piano Player, the version here has its own charm, sounding more like a hymn you would sing at church then a rock song.

The closing track, "Gulliver/It's Hay Chewed/Reprise," is an oddity, and a horrible way to close out Empty Sky. The first third is par for the course in terms of the rest of the album, so it's weak at the core. "It's Hay Chewed," on the other hand, is the second most shining moment on Empty Sky, as Elton and the boys goes jazz on the listener. John would rarely go down this route; it's a shame he didn't more often. After that brief treat, "Reprise" plays just like it sounds; the listener is treated to brief clips of every song on the album. If an album isn't that good, reminding the listener of that fact is not the best choice of action.

These days, most of Elton's early albums come with an assortment of bonus tracks. Empty Sky actually benefits from their inclusion. The acid rock of "Lady Samantha," the folksy "All Across The Havens," and the gorgeous ballad "It's Me That You Need" all are stronger than most of the material on the actual album. "Just Like Strange Rain" plays much like a song from Empty Sky but has a catchy, strong refrain. Had these four songs been on Empty Sky, things might have been a little different.

Empty Sky is not Elton John's strongest work; in fact, it ranks pretty low on the list. However, the album does provide the listener with glimpses of the future. Thankfully, Elton's growing pains would disappear very quickly with his eponymous breakthrough album.

Rating: B-

User Rating: B-



© 2006 Jeff Clutterbuck and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Island, and is used for informational purposes only.