Songs From The West Coast
Rocket / Universal Records, 2001
REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/22/2010
I remember in the weeks that followed September 11th, there was this feeling that pervaded the air in my hometown, state, and the country. There was that nagging question of when it was going to be acceptable to get back to normal, everyday living. How long was the NFL going to take before they played again? What about Major League Baseball? What about going to the movies and seeing a comedy? (The Ben Stiller flick “Zoolander” came out in this time period, and many believe its poor box office performance was due to the nations grief and strife. That or it was a crappy movie.)
Songs From The West Coast was released on October 1st, 2001. Critical acclaim greeted its arrival, as well as a fair amount of buzz amongst the media, but it seems clear that at the time, the world either did not care or just wasn't in the frame of mind for new Elton. What people may have missed at the time was that after arguably two decades of middling around musically, John returned to his roots as a singer-songwriter, and one of the greatest ever at that.
I believe it was Chris Thelen, who in his take on this record, stated that Elton John's career could be charted quite clearly: the highs and the lows being obvious to anyone familiar with the pianist's back catalogue. Whatever feeling you may have about the Rocket Man, it's hard to argue the point. For every Too Low For Zero, there was Leather Jackets or The One. For many in ‘01, the Elton John they knew was that guy singing with the cartoon lions in the background from The Lion King. If you came in with that specific type of baggage, then Songs From The West Coast would have seemed foreign and strange.
Even with my history as a huge Elton supporter, this record took some time to grow on me. It wasn't that the record wasn't any good when it was released; but truth be told, something just didn't feel right at the time. Everyone around the country had a harsh crystallization of their priorities going on, and I wasn't any different. And building on that idea, Songs From The West Coast isn't particularly joyful or bouncy, traits many associated with the Elton records from the ‘90s.
In fact, there is a distinct mournful, autumn quality to the album that almost sneaks up on the listener that is unfamiliar with John's earlier work. The recollections of the Matthew Shephard murder ("American Triangle") and the potent imagery of an AIDS-riddled dancer ("Ballad Of The Boy In The Red Shoes") are just heartbreaking. The eerie, ghostly background vocals from Rufus Wainwright during the former track are a far cry from the forced efforts of a mere few years earlier.
Part of the makeup of Songs From The West Coast is the lack of what one may define as a "classic" Elton single, The two efforts from the album, "I Want Love" and "This Train Don't Stop There Anymore," are outstanding pieces of work but are far removed from their ‘90s counterparts. "This Train" is steeped in melancholy, its Baccarach-inspired music finding a home amongst John reflecting on a life of stardom. The emotion that pours out of Elton just sends home the idea that he and partner Bernie Taupin had stopped putting out mediocre work, and were set on rediscovering themselves. The ensuring years have seen John and Taupin explore this concept, with Peachtree Road and The Captain & The Kid. But this record was their first stab at ignoring the inevitable demands of the record label for relevancy and just making the sort of music that they used to.
Not everything works as well as may have been intended; a handful of tracks fail to become memorable: the country-twang of "Birds" is something John has been had various levels of success with since the ‘60s, and here is not one of the strong moments. "The Wasteland" comes off as a forced attempt to "rock." It has a name drop of Robert Johnson, and honestly, that is about it. "Dark Diamond" brings in Stevie Wonder in a guest spot, but the majority has been correct on this track since Day 1: it's a skip.
But really, in what may sound like a copout, it's not terribly important for me to tell you what doesn't work on Songs From The West Coast; it's the recommitment on the part of John and what has followed in the years since that is the important aspect to take away. We were occupied at the time this record came out and may have missed out on something that was going on. That's okay – there are reasons that critics trot out nine year old albums to review...