Decca Records, 2010
REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/25/2010
A few years ago, Bob Dylan made a comment about how Elton John was one of the few artists left from the golden era out there "doing his own thing." Whether or not you particularly care for John's music is an argument for a different time: the man has not changed in four decades. Whereas a group such as U2, or the Stones might embrace newer sounds and trends in an attempt to sound up to date, Elton John has always sounded like, well, Elton John.
Leon Russell, on the other hand, has no such acclaim to his name; no list of current artists lined up to kiss the ring and honor a genuine talent. Russell is/has been a mercurial personality, more famous for filling in someone else's sounds than crafting his own. I will not pretend that I'm familiar with his catalogue: a recent, brief sampling displayed a man with talents that just never made it to the next level.
Just the side by side photograph on the cover strains credulity at the notion of these two men engaging in a lengthy collaboration. Everyone knows just what John brings to the table: a flamboyant personality with the garish clothing to boot. Russell at this point in time looks like a mix between Billy Gibbons and Santa Claus. Lady Gaga and Elton? That makes a hell of lot more sense, and just sounds better than a Russell/John pairing.
Yet the relatively undisclosed part of this story is just how much John cares for his counterpart. In the recent press junkets, John has never been shy about citing Russell as his greatest influence as a keyboard player. He has gone on to raise hell about how ignored Russell remains, and has made it clear he wishes to bring the spotlight onto Leon for the remainder of his career. Hence: The Union.
After numerous spins, it is clear what positives having Russell contributing bring into the mix. There is an earthy, rootsy presence that has rarely been present in John's work to date. The Rocket Man has never been afraid to pile it on, whereas Russell and producer T Bone Burnett dial that "it" back. On another Elton record, a track such as "Never Too Old To Hold Somebody" would have surely sunk under the weight of too much schmaltz. Here, it's a gentle, rolling ballad that strikes all the right emotional chords.
Russell does keep the proceedings grounded, yet the feel of the record is undeniably Elton-dominated. This is to be expected for multiple reasons: first being Russell had just come off of major brain surgery before the recording of the record and no one would blame him for not having the vim and vigor to shout his point across. Secondly, John is a huge personality, capable of writing hit songs in the time it takes me to make a sandwich. A quick glance at the credits reveals that the majority of the songs were written by John and Taupin. Such productivity surely must have been overwhelming in a collaborative scenario. To give Burnett and Russell credit, The Union in no way The One or Leather Jackets with an occasionally lead from a different vocalist. Their unique talents ensure to that, and perhaps that is the true sign of collaboration: the ability to take what makes an artist special and incorporate that into someone else's sound.
A simpler reason might be that John's work is the best off the record. His ballads are some of the best he has written in the last 30 years ("The Best Part Of The Day," "When Love Is Dying," "Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes"). Burnett's production is tremendous on these tracks: as I said earlier instead of dialing up the "bloody orchestra" as John once called it, he leaves things be. The melodies carry the tunes, and no one does it better than John when it comes to that.
The moments when the tempo picks up are predominately Russell tunes, and for the most part they work in context with the record. A track like "A Dream Come True" is tremendous fun just to hear Russell go to town on the piano with his incredibly distinctive left handed style of play. Burnett knows how to do these sorts of songs perfectly; his recent success with Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, and the Crazy Heart soundtrack are an impressive resume. One song in particular, "I Should Have Sent Roses," is a Russell/Taupin piece that allows Burnett to rip a page straight out of the Neil Young playbook and run it perfectly. This track alone justifies the entire premise of The Union.
Truthfully, after the first handful of spins I was a tad underwhelmed with The Union. Any reader of this site is more than likely aware of my thoughts regarding Elton John. Such feelings tend to make me closer to a record than I should be sometimes, but in this case there was no instant hyperbole, no exclamation of "Best Record since 1975!" Honestly, it took me a week before I could accept The Union on its own terms, and digest just what Russell and John had to offer. Does it succeed in fulfilling John's wish for Russell to get a little taste of the spotlight again? The public reception has already indicated yes, although I'd argue there is room for improvement with future collaborations.