Elton John – The Diving Board – Mercury B001866802, 57:32 [9/24/13] ****:
(Elton John – vocals, piano; Jay Bellerose – drums; Raphael Saadiq – bass; David Pitch – arco bass (track 9); Keefus Ciancia – keys; Stjepan Hauser, Luka Selic – cello (tracks 1, 4, 12); Jack Ashford – tambourine (tracks 3-4, 7-8, 10, 13); Doyle Bramhall II – guitar (tracks 3, 10); Darrell Leonard – horns arranger, Flugelhorn (tracks 9, 12, 15), trumpet, bass trumpet (tracks 12, 15); Chuck Findley – Flugelhorn (track 9); George Bohanon – baritone horn (track 9), trombone, euphonium (tracks 12, 15); Bruce Fowler – trombone (track 9); William Roper – tuba (tracks 9, 15); Ira Nepus – trombone (tracks 12, 15); Larry Goldings – Hammond B-3 (track 15); T-Bone Burnett – producer)
Elton John’s nearly hour-long The Diving Board is an album of roots. Producer T-Bone Burnett, who also did behind-the-boards magic on 2010’s The Union (an Elton John duet with another fine pianist/singer, Leon Russell), brings the same type of relaxed, natural interaction which infused The Union with timelessness. Like that record, Burnett helps John dial-down the hooks, instead focusing on tunes which slowly, steadily develop and reveal tiny but nuanced details on subsequent listening. On The Union, John’s musical partner, Bernie Taupin, provided some lyrics, and thankfully he’s on board again, this time contributing to all but three interlude instrumentals. For this outing, Taupin has penned some of his most eloquent narratives, and created a pop music chapbook of sorts filled with literary, historical and personal touchstones. Musically, John evokes some of his 1970s output: not the hits, but rather the vague idiosyncrasy which suffused 1970’s Tumbleweed Connection, without replicating what came before. John wisely decided to feature a core piano/bass/drums trio on most cuts, which gives the material an easy essence and an unaffected engagement: a methodology he notates during a brief online promotional video.
Time and heritage glisten gracefully through many tracks. The opener, the piano-vocals only ballad, “Oceans Away,” is dedicated to Taupin’s father, who was part of what journalist Tom Brokaw dubbed the Great Generation, those who lived through the Great Depression and served during World War II. The sublime song is a testament to veterans who survived and “those that fell/the ones who had to stay/beneath a little wooden cross oceans away.” A western tinge permeates the polished and melancholy tale about “A Town Called Jubilee,” punctuated by John’s piano rolls, and the sliding guitar of Doyle Bramhall II (who was also on The Union, and whose credits include Eric Clapton and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters). The sense of fading memory, and a yearning for a nostalgic return to the past, flits through the moody single, “Home Again,” about an aging singer who recalls his glory years. John’s ties to Tumbleweed Connection are more pointedly precise on the gospel-ish “Take This Dirty Water,” about revisiting youth’s wellspring.
Certain words or phrases are repeated in separate songs, supporting connections which supply continuity even when the text is implemented in a different context. For example, the final days of a bon vivant are portrayed in the moving portrait, “Oscar Wilde Gets Out,” which hints at the writer’s final life in France. A similar escape to Paris is explored during the somber soliloquy, “My Quicksand,” which includes the insinuating line “for any ghost of every poet in the ground.” “My Quicksand” is also notable because it features what is seemingly Elton’s first recorded piano solo, a jazzy middle-eight sequence which slips in a famous classical music refrain. Other superficially simple repetitions also recur: a red flag surfaces as an aspect during “Take This Dirty Water,” whereas a white flag is used as an image in “The New Fever Waltz,” a delicate ode to the search and attainment of late-in-life love. There are a number of other instances of this lyrical approach which can be discovered.
The Diving Board is not an album of expectations: anyone pining for another “Philadelphia Freedom” or “Candle in the Wind” should rummage through one of John’s greatest hits collections. The Diving Board is basically an amply satisfactory set of songs from two quietly brilliant pop-tune collaborators who have one caveat for potential listeners: spend time to realize the shaded pleasures.
TrackList: Oceans Away; Oscar Wilde Gets Out; A Town Called Jubilee; The Ballad of Blind Tom; Cream #1; My Quicksand; Can’t Stay Alone Tonight; Voyeur; Home Again; Take This Dirty Water;Dream #2; The New Fever Waltz; Mexican Vacation (Kids in the Candlelight); Dream #3; The Diving Board.