tell me what the papers say .....

UNCUT october 2001, n. 53
Sottotitolo: back to basics, and partial return to form, on 28th studio
Tre stelle
Didascalia foto: dwight light, dwight heat.

For all the awesome excess and weeping lows, the selfishness, largesse, spite, self-pity, drugs, dead royalty and dodgy wardrobes which make EJ such reliably good copy, the talent normally resting at the heart of such stories has been running on empty for nearly two decades. His greatest failure, along with his shadowy lyrical Boswell, Bernie Taupin, has been his consistent inability to convert his giddily unnatural life into art, even as
he's lost touch with how the rest of us scrape by, instead, Louis XIV-like, tossing out increasingly grandiose pop crumbs of decreasing nourishment, "Circle Of Life" not the worst. Like other once-facile MOR pop masters of
the Seventies -McCarteny, Wonder, even Sting- Elton has also seen his knack for a melody, the chart artist's knockout punch, disappear.   Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973) remains the only album where his combination of Philly Soul arrangements and Carole King sentiment was coherently great, the career-saving comeback Too Low For Zero (1983) his last year of hungry sharpness, the cloaked Sun-bashing, autobiographical "Made In England" (1995) his last admirable hit. So, naturally, here he and Bernie are again, trying a back-to-basics approach, attempting to walk back down the Yellow Brick Road.   The production, by Pat Leonard (Madonna) and Billy Bottrell (Shelby Linn), starts by chucking out the last decade's hollow bombast, concentrating on Elton's piano and still-strong voice, with a honky tonk feel and allusive Philly string. There's also a new, promising detail to Elton's playing and Taupin's lyrics on the opening, expansive "The Emperor's New Clothes".   Though the tendency to follow "dog" with "cat" suggests Taupin has been at
this game too long, "American Triangle" (which features Rufus Wainwright on backing vocals) also makes a very decent stab at contrasting the pioneer Western sky of Wyoming and the gay teenager Matt Shephard brutally murdered there -Elton's own "Southern Man".   More interesting are a cluch of songs which seem finally to address Elton's place in the world -"I Want Love"' confession to a cold , lonely sexuality, "The Wasteland"'s bluesy wondering at his fantasy, alien life, and "Ballad Of The Boy In The Red Shoes" whic, though written about AIDS, could be a portrai of a dying star. "The sentimental things I write, Never meant that much to me," Elton sings at the end, as if we hadn't noticed. But while his melodies still stutter, making this album eventually unmemorable, there are, at least, signs of life.
(Nick Hasted)


It has been so long since EJ has offered a recording that didn't have a cloying context that it's hard not to be initially skeptical of the earnest tone of West Coast. Is it too late for the artist to return to the pensive but vital tone of such classics as Madman Across the Water? The kneejerk reaction may be unfortunate, but close inspection of West Coast could change the mind of the most jaded listener. Producer Patrick Leonard keeps the studio gloss to a minimum, allowing the songs of John and longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin to take organic
shape; this approach also empowers the artist to sing with more passion than he has in years. He's most effective on the Matthew Shepard-inspired "American Triangle" and on "The Ballad of the Boy in the Red Shoes," a heartbreaking tale of a ballet dancer recalling past glories as AIDS-related illness claims his body. Such well-wrought material could herald a creative resurrection of a much-missed master.—LF


In the 1970s, when Elton John had six consecutive American number ones, he and lyricist Bernie Taupin were regarded as major talents. Decades seemingly dedicated to messing about have turned John into a national treasure, but along the way his music has fluttered into the background. Now comes Songs from the West Coast and, almost inconceivably, John is reborn as a serious artist. The album harkens to his golden years, but its quality renders it as timeless as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.   It's a simple but dramatic affair, performed with a sympathetic band, capable of turning Original Sin and I Want Love into grandstanding but uncluttered epics. Meanwhile, John sings his heart out, and creates soaring keyboard melodies to Taupin's ice-pick-sharp lyrics. Birds and Mansfield are the pick of a splendid bunch. Maybe the coastingdays are over. 4 STARS


Elton is Ryan Adams' most high-profile celebrity fan, thanking him in the credits to this, his 40th album, for
having "inspired me to do better". And so he has: Songs From The West Coast is his best release in, well,
decades; its relatively stripped-down sound is a deliberate reversion to the early Elton style of Tumbleweed
Connection, and the strength of its songwriting marks a long overdue return to the classic John/Taupin virtues
of narrative drive and melodic persuasion. The album is bookended by a couple of reflections on former glories: "The Emperor's New Clothes" is a mea culpa for the arrogant assumptions of youth, with Paul Buckmaster's horn arrangement adding just the faintest hint of Hovis to the recollections, while the big anthemic set-closer "This Train Don't Stop There Anymore" employs an evocative railway metaphor in its eulogy to fading powers: "I used to be the main express/All steam and whistles heading west." The same sense of regret for unfulfilled promise underpins the Aids lament "Ballad Of The Boy In The Red Shoes", and elsewhere songs such as the frisky "Birds", "Original Sin" and "Dark Diamond" (with bubbling clavinet courtesy of Stevie Wonder) manage to deal with difficult issues in a mature and melodic manner.  Perhaps the most daring song here, however, is Elton's response to the murder by redneck yahoos of a gay man, "American Triangle", whose criticism of unthinking traditionalism – "Western skies don't make it right" – is hardly likely to get much US airplay at the moment.


Sir Elton thinks Songs from the West Coast is his best album for years - and it proves that the star still has the creative, schmaltzy, showy juices coursing through his veins.  This album does not contain songs that could rival his hits of the 70s and 80s, but neither is it an embarrassing effort from a star trying to convince himself that his career is not dead.  Let's just call this period his long, drawn out musical old age. This is his 40th album in 32 years, and he continues to use the ability to inject a sense of high drama into his tunes with a deep voice and grand piano.  Songs including American Triangle, Original Sin and new single I Want Love use this with good effect.  Jaunty tunes, like Birds and The Wasteland, are out-numbered and influenced by country music that he
must have picked up while on that West Coast that he talks about.  On the whole, it is standard Sir Elton stuff that fans will rush out to buy, and non-fans will never have any reason to go anywhere near. There is a definite blessing, though - he has not yet resorted to Posh and Kylie's tactics of recruiting hip producers to make him sound modern.


The appearance of "Rocket Man"-era cohorts Nigel Olsson and Davey Johnstone as backing vocalists touches this CD with one of the trademark sounds of Elton John's 1969-75 LPs. John has acknowledged those records --his most typically singer-songwriterish-- occasionally, if mostly to revisit audience favorites in concert (1987's Live in Australia, a late-'90s VH1 show). But on Songs from the West Coast, his admiration of Ryan Adams and Rufus Wainwright (a guest here) inspires him to recall the stripped-down, lyric-driven sensibility of his early days. The tone of the words Bernie Taupin feeds this notorious diva is elegiac, rooted in a wearier version of the romanticism that fueled oldies as diverse as "Your Song," "Love Lies Bleeding," and "Burn Down the Mission." West Coast sidesteps bombast with a couple of exceptions; only "The Wasteland," with its invocation of Robert Johnson, is enough to provoke a dismayed "oy." The standout track is "I Want Love," a Lennonesque rumination that's their most impressive writing, separately or together, in more than a decade.


Reunited with lyricist Bernie Taupin, he has stripped his sound down to basic.  Reunited with lyricist Bernie Taupin, he has stripped his sound down to basic vocals and piano, plus some simple drums, guitar and organ, the odd blast of brass and sparse use of strings. The album’s opener, The Emperor’s New Clothes, couldn’t be more of a throwback to Elton’s glory days. It’s just him at the piano, little else, and like his old mucker Rod Stewart, his voice has yet to be affected by age. Elton claims he was trying to capture the tone of his 1971 album Tumbleweed Connection, but he borrows from heaven knows how many dozen or so albums he made in the first half of that decade. There are hints of Your Song on the lovely ballad Original Sin, the blues-rock of Honky Cat on Wasteland and Crocodile Rock on the funkier Look Ma, No Hands and the gospel-tinged Birds. Dark Diamond – on which Stevie Wonder plays clavinet and harmonica – could have come from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Elton is right to claim that the album closer This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore sounds a lot like Bacharach and David composition. Only American Triangle – a song about the murder of a young gay man in Wyoming, featuring Rufus Wainwright on vocals – is a bit dreary. Before anyone gets carried away, Songs From The West Coast isn’t Elton back to his seventies best, but closer to his prime than even he must have thought he would ever get again.


Revitalised by his recent solo tours, Elton John returns to the stripped-down approach of vintage albums such as Madman Across The Water. Unlike 1997’s overwrought and disappointing The Big Picture, this is dominated by his commanding vocals and intricate yet soulful piano playing. Recorded in Los Angeles (hence the title), it reunites Elton with his original lyricist, Bernie Taupin. Their partnership works superbly on songs such as Original Sin and the poignant American Triangle, harking back to the unadorned, piano-and-vocals approach of the seventies.  Other tracks have more embellishment: opener The Emperor’s New Clothes is spiced with mellow horns; the epic current single I Want love owes much to John Lennon; This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore provided a grand finale with lavish strings and backing vocals from, among others, former Take That singer Gary Barlow.  Painstaking reflection remains Taupin’s (sometimes cloying) lyrical forte, but there are enjoyable uptempo tracks, too. Dark Diamond is a simple pop tune enlivened by Stevie Wonder’s harmonica and clavinet, while The Wasteland is vigorous, blues-tinged gospel. Although Elton has always kept abreast of pop trends – in his liner notes he thanks rising star Ryan Adams for inspiring him -he has wisely stuck to his established strengths, and produced his finest album in years.


Compared to the twaddle he has put out and compared to the likes of The Lion King, Songs From The West Coast is a diamond. The songs are stronger than they have been some time and Elton carries them well, but far and away the most affecting thing are the words. American Triangle (about the murder of a young gay man) and The Ballad Of The Boy In The Red Shoes (about a man dying of Aids) are good songs made almost great because of Taupin’s lyrics.  Songs... is a return to form and if you liked the early albums, such as Honky Chateau, you’ll like this. It’s the best Elton John album since Blue Moves but, given that’s like saying Spurs are playing better now than they were under George Graham, it doesn’t really tell you much. Like Victoria Beckham last week, Elt’s a character, a player in the national soap. That he makes records is somehow irrelevant to his standing. It is nice that it’s diverting him away from those Tim Rice collaborations – but I hope it doesn’t get in the way of all the tantrums and tiaras. 3 STARS


It don't always work when veteran rockers try to conjure their classic albums' old black magic. Going back to your roots and whatnot sounds good on paper, but your voice and reflexes change, recording techniques evolve and fashions shift. Maybe you've actually grown up, even if your audience hasn't. With its backward-looking cameos by SW, BP and kindred soul RW, SFTWC attempts to reinstate Elton John as an album artist. It aims to recapture the expansive sounds and sensibility of MATW, HC and other early vehicles that blasted pop's rocket man into the AM-FM stratosphere, before mega-celebrity, a nonstop work ethic and a whole lotta drugs dissipated his gargantuan gifts. Maybe breaking with JR, his longtime manager and onetime partner, allowed John the clarity to hear what he'd lost. Or maybe seeing the way Almost Famous viewers embraced TD motivated the spectacled one to reach for that soul-deep melodrama again. For a moment, he grasps it. With its pensive George Harrison-esque guitar, Ringo-y drum thud and authentic Preston organ, IWL showcases John's hookiest chord progression in years, and the toughest BT poetry in decades: "A man like me is dead in places other men feel liberated," John spits out, owning every succinct phrase. Other tracks miss admirably. AT addresses MS's homophobic murder with awkwardly specific lyrics that narrow the widescreen scope of John's classical-minded composition. TENC flashes back to TC's Americana, but its verse is too wordy, a few notes too low and hill-billy corny.  Ballad... is the best of the rest that fall between rediscovery and self-homage. Former Madonna collaborator PL helps John re-create the muscular orchestration of TD to metaphorically suit Taupin's tale of a male ballet master thinking back on former glories and family frustrations as AIDS claims his
ince-agile body. John can't always send his music soaring the way it used to, but its spirit and ambition have finally come back home. 4 STARS


Throughout his songs for The Road to El Dorado, Elton John hinted at his classic sound of the early '70s, but it's still a refreshing surprise to find him largely returning to that sound on his 2001 album, Songs From the West Coast. It was easy to think that John wasn't interested in writing like this anymore, given not just his continued success, but the ease with which he was crafting pleasant adult contemporary records. There are still elements of that on Songs From the West Coast — a few of the ballads are a little too even-handed, and since this is a modern recording, it lacks the resonant warmth of such classics as Honky Chateau and Tumbleweed Connection. Still, this is the richest, best record he's released in a long time, an album where it feels like a hit single is secondary to the sheer pleasure of craft, whether it's crafting a song or an album. And this is an album that flows easily and naturally, setting the mood with the story sketch "The Emperor's New Clothes" and then heading in a number of scenic directions. Of these, "American Triangle," his elegy for Matthew Shepard, will likely receive the most attention, but the most interesting are songs like the bluesy "The Wasteland," "Ballad of the Boy in the Red Shoes," which recalls the Tumbleweed epics, the neo-Captain Fantastic tune "Dark Diamond," the soulful closer "This Train Don't Stop There Anymore," and "Birds," a terrific, spare, rolling country-rocker. His songwriting hasn't been this diverse or consistent since the early '80s, and he hasn't made a record better than this in years. No, Songs From the West Coast won't make you forget Tumbleweed Connection, but it often recalls those peaks, which, frankly, is enough. 4 STARS


SONGS FROM THE WEST COAST is the album for all those who idolize HONKY CHATEAU and CAPTAIN FANTASTIC but feared that Elton John had become Disneyfied beyond repair in the '90s.  Whether the inspiration was aesthetic hunger or mid-life crisis, Elton decided to team up with lyricist Bernie Taupin--the man who helped pen all those '70s classics--to produce a more direct, stripped-down album than he's seemed capable of since his glory days. There's no overblown orchestration here, just simple arrangements based quite rightly around Elton's piano and voice. Playing to his strengths, the piano man concentrates largely on ballads, from the somewhat Beatlesque "I Want Love" to the stately, elegiac "This Train Don't Stop There Anymore." Still, Elton didn't become the master pop craftsman that he is by constructing monochromatic records; "The Wasteland" is a churning bluesy number, and "Dark Diamond" employs a modified reggae rhythm. After years of wandering around in a star-studded artistic netherworld, Elton serves notice with SONGS FROM THE WEST COAST that he's putting them together and belting them out again like he did in his heyday.


It's probably not going too far out on a limb to mention that the Elton John of whom people are most fond is the Elton John of older, classic songs such as "Benny and the Jets," "Your Song," and "Daniel." Back then, the bespectacled Elton was flamboyant, alive with eccentricity, entertaining, and quite the piano pounder. His songwriting partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin was vital, and together they created masterworks of piano-based pop such as Captain Fantastic and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Apparently, Elton and Taupin kept these now-ancient accomplishments in mind when sitting down to write and record Songs from the West Coast, his first album of originals in over two years. It's also the first record in ages that will have old-school Elton fans trotting out their big sunglasses and sequins as they rejoice Reg's return to his simple, much-loved sound. In fact, the first thing one hears on the album's first track, "The Emperor's New Clothes," is the sound of a piano, followed by John's inimitable voice, here reminiscent of his solo pop work on the seminal Honky Chateau. It's a warm, solid intro to an album that is itself warm and solid. Songs such as the lilting, Lennon-esque "I Want Love" and the equally powerful "Original Sin" do indeed recall Elton the Romantic, the artist who could write a great piano hook and sing along to it with all his heart. Stevie Wonder injects a little funk on "Dark Diamond," while "Ballad of the Boy in the Red Shoes" is a touching saga about a man dying of AIDS. Not all of Songs is this noteworthy: Seemingly -- in his haste to put out an organic-sounding, under-produced effort -- John cut some vocal corners, coming up short on songs such as "Wasteland" and the bland "Love Her Like Me." Elton can't sing like he used to.  Songs from the West Coast may not qualify as a heavyweight set that measures up to his past best work, but it does put Elton back on the map -- back in classic '70s style, where most of his fans feel he should be.

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At once a throwback and a move forward, West Coast reunites John with lyricist Bernie Taupin and hooks him up with vocalists ranging from Stevie Wonder to Rufus Wainwright. If the opener "The Emperor's New Clothes," reminds old fans of "Your Song," it's supposed to: It's stark piano-and-vocal arrangement (deployed frequently throughout the CD) is there to prove John's undimmed vocal power. As usual, Taupin's lyrics are cluttered and cliched -- John has always used them as strings of metered syllables to hang his emotions on. This is
problematic when Taupin has an actual subject to address, such as homophobia in "American Triangle," but liberating for Elton elsewhere: This is his most nuanced, openhearted, and headlong collection in years. Rating: A-


The creative team of Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin continues to thrive.  The two have fashioned some of the best pop of the past three decades - and their first record in the new millennium, ''Songs From the West Coast,'' shows they haven't lost their touch. The new CD, which comes out Tuesday, mines the refined piano-pop for which they're known, but this time matches it to a mature, act-your-age sensibility that is quite refreshing. Several songs are about finding the will to love when you grow older.  Some songs have a very
personal stamp, and are sung that way by John, whose musical inspiration and tone will remind listeners of his famed early albums, ''Tumbleweed Connection'' and ''Madman Across the Water.''The new single, ''I Want Love,'' merges John's acoustic piano with Billy Preston's electric piano, while voicing the grown-up message: ''I want love - just a different kind/ I want a love that won't break me down, won't brick me up, won't fence me in.'' John sings it in a confessional tone, with none of the showboating that has marred some of his previous work. Now an adult-contemporary hero, John has sometimes tried to keep one foot in Backstreet Boy land, trying to be an eternal teenager cozying up to the Top 40 charts. That has led to some frivolous music in the past, but not on this more serious, reflective album (though the music is still infectious enough to appeal to many age groups).And when was the last John album to contain a Robert Johnson reference? John name checks the pioneering bluesman in ''The Wasteland,'' with the verse: ''Come on Robert Johnson/ Though we're worlds apart/ You and I know what it's like with the devil in our heart.'' OK, it's not exactly ''Hellhound on My Trail,'' but it gets the point across.  John has imported some ace musicians. Stevie Wonder plays harp on the soul-searching ''Dark Diamond'' (about hardening one's heart after the loss of a love), North Shore  percussionist Jay Bellerose (from Paula Cole's band) contributes to a couple of tracks, Matt Chamberlain (who has worked with Pearl Jam and Tori Amos) is a steady presence on drums, and the young Rufus Wainwright adds a vocal harmony to the stirring ''American Triangle.'' It is presumably about the gay-bashing murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming: ''Home of the brave don't make no sense/ It's a cold wind blowing,  yoming.''The songs are stately and resonate with a depth that suggests the partnership between John and Taupin is
still a fertile one. They hit stride on ''Look Ma, No Hands'' (a Dylanesque tune about a man with grandiose illusions), the exquisite ''Ballad of the Boy in the Red Shoes'' (about a man dying of AIDS who remembers his youth), and ''Mansfield'' (about a torrid courtship that was ''blind to the change to come'').The lyrics are probing, but the music builds upliftingly throughout, except for ''This Train Don't Stop Here Anymore,'' which sounds out of place and schlocky. For the most part, though, John masterfully underscores the songs with melodic piano fills, while singing with a sense of commitment that is enthralling. This CD may not become a commercial bockbuster, but it is bound to find a home with true Elton lovers.


On his latest collection, out Tuesday, John returns to his stripped-down beginnings as a serious singer and piano player. And I, for one, say it's about bloody time after a steady stream of overproduced pap like Can You Feel The Love Tonight. Hooking up with longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, the singer says he wanted a sound reminiscent of his earlier material from 1970's Elton John to 1975's Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy. Even if John doesn't quite reach those heights, he gets awfully close on a couple of occasions, such as the heartbreaking American Triangle, which mourns the 1998 murder of young gay student Matthew
Shepard in Wyoming, and features Canadian Rufus Wainwright on harmony vocals. "Western skies, don't make it right, unmark the grave, don't make no sense, I seen a scarecrow wrapped in wire, left to die on a highridge fence," John sings on the chorus. Other standouts include the rootsy, soulful Birds, the uptempo gospel-soul tune Wasteland and Ballad Of The Boy With The Red Shoes, about a ballet dancer dying of AIDS. Guests include Stevie Wonder playing harmonica on Dark Diamond, another highlight, while Billy Preston turns up on B3 organ on Wasteland and Love Her Like Me. 4 STARS


Just about every artist of, shall we say, "a certain age," has tried his or her luck by climbing into the ol' time machine and setting the controls for the good old days. Few make the trip unscathed, but on his latest offering, Elton John proves that it can be done. Songs from the West Coast is a surprisingly rough-and-tumble replication of the finest early Eltonia, mixing the bite of Madman Across the Water with the pop-rock snap of Honky Chateau, particularly on the Beatles-tinged rocker "I Want Love."  Elton bats around a variety of styles here, connecting solidly on the rootsy "The Emperor's New Clothes" and the New Orleans-styled "The Wasteland," on which he spars with fellow keyboardist Billy Preston. There's a somber tone to many of the album's songs, notably "American Triangle," which candidly dissects Matthew Shepard's homophobic murder, and "Ballad of the Boy in the Red Shoes," a regretful retrospective from the point of view of a man suffering from AIDS. Even when the going gets tough, however, Elton refuses to get maudlin -- which, given the tenor of his recent projects, is cause for celebration. Clearly, not every pop icon can go home again. But it's great to hear that Elton, for one, still has the keys to his old pop Pleasuredome.


As befits a man noted for the extravagance of his wardrobe, Elton John wears many hats. He is an A-list celebrity, a reformed addict, a football mogul, a legendary party-giver, an AIDS fundraiser, a Disney tunesmith, a friend to florists everywhere, a Knight of the British Empire and a national institution who, if not quite the Queen Mother, is certainly the mother of all queens.  Now at the age of 54, he has decided he wants to be a pop star again, and his wish is already half way to being granted. You can hardly open the papers or turn on the radio without being told how good his new album is. It could be a case of His Best Since syndrome – the process whereby a new album by, say, Bob Dylan is always greeted by someone as his best since Blood On The Tracks, even if it really a cast-iron duffer.  The equivalent landmark in Elton’s career is probably Blue Moves, the last of the scintillating seven albums between 1972 and 1976, which included Honky Chateau , Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic. There have been outstanding songs since, from Song For Guy to Sacrifice and Circle Of Life, but no great albums.  Songs From the West Coast, which seems to be Elton’s 27th new album, has duly been acclaimed as his best since Blue Moves. And this time, the hype is justified.  High among Elton’s redeeming features is his appetite – insatiable, naturally – for new music. One of the CDs he heaped into his shopping basket last year was by the little known singer-songwriter Ryan Adams who appears in Elton’s sleeve credits as the person ‘who inspired me to do better’. Elton was stirred not to imitate Adams, or the other young acts he was listening to, but to find himself. ‘I decided,’ he says, ‘I’m just going to be as Elton as I can.’ So it was back to….well, basics is not quite the word for one as theatrical as Elton. But he did go back to Bernie Taupin, lyricist on nearly all his classic songs, and back to the piano, and back to the craftmanship that made him famous in the first place. A typical album today contains 14 songs, half of which are duds. Songs From The West Coast has 12 tracks from the 22 Elton and Bernie wrote. Each is a thing of substance, with a tune, a subject, a structure and a strong flavour. After a 25-year gap, Elton has rediscovered consistency. The Elton formula - a rolling ballad with a leisurely melody featuring a grandiose piano and a cascade of words, sung with more warmth than precision – exists out of time and fashion.
Those hoping for a stab at UK garage will be disappointed. Those who just want good songs are in for hours
of pleasure. Ballad Of The Boy In The Red Shoes – a very Taupin title, eight words but all of them short – is a
gem, a lament for the AIDS generation with a chourus that is both muscular and wistful. It may be the song of
the year. There are at least four more classics. American Triangle is one, on which Elton again comes out fighting for the gay cause, an account of a real-life homophobic murder in Wyoming which converts righteous fury into many-layered lyricism. The prevailing theme, however, is not getting mad or getting even or getting laid (though that has its place) but getting on a bit. This Train Don’t Stop There Any More, which closes the album, is a big orchestrated ballad with a lyric of reflection, regret and resolve that perhaps only a fiftysomething could sing with conviction. Original Sin is a love song with the touching stateliness of Sacrifice. Dark Diamond, featuring Stevie Wonder on harmonica, is another candid look at middle age, homing in on the hardening, not of the arteries, but of the heart itself. The same theme reappears on I Want Love, a fine first single with a striking video starring Robert Downey Jr, whose ability to self-destruct reminds Elton of his younger self. In its unflinching presentation of the sort of love required, the lyric is unusually dislikeable, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. These songs are the sound of a star who won’t let the sun go down on him. Hotel-bar piano players are not going to believe their good fortune. 5 STARS


Freed from the obligations of yet another Disney soundtrack -- "Make it big!"  "Make it sweet!" "Make it barely distinguishable from the last one!" -- Elton John is back to what he does best.   In the refreshingly spare arrangements of "Songs From the West Coast," in stores today, we hear how powerful a vocalist he can be. "I Want Love," the first single, reaffirms that as it slowly reveals a wise and world-weary heart ready for one more turn at romance.  The airy feel of "Songs" leaves lots of room for Elton the musician. His lively and crisp playing is the best thing about "The Emperor's New Clothes." The dobro joins the mix on the contemplative "Birds," lending a country twirl to a song so soulful it sounds as if it were arranged on a front porch.   But the really big news is that John has reteamed with longtime songwriter Bernie Taupin. You know what that means: They'll break your heart.  "Songs From the West Coast" is dedicated to, among others, Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student who was killed three years ago, because he was gay.  On "American Triangle," John uses his best storytelling techniques to bring home the tragedy. There's Taupin's  unshakable chorus: "Western skies don't make it right/ Home of the brave don't make no sense/ I seen a scarecrow wrapped in wire/ Left to die on a high ridge fence." 4 1/2 STARS

After all the Disney-styled show schlock that Elton John has dished out like cold mush to orphans, on his new record, "Songs From The West Coast," Sir Elton has rediscovered why he was first discovered.  On the dozen songs that make up the new album John and his writing partner Bernie Taupin sound like they did when they were fresh-faced kids. While there are none of the rough edges that made the now ancient "Tumbleweed Connection" so appealing, this new disc projects the same kind of heart and soul.  It's as if the pair had an epiphany and realized that for years they were gilding the lily on the ballads and dressing the monkey in a cowboy suit when they tried to rock out.  This is a simple album that keeps a tight focus on John's emotive vocals, his power piano and Taupin's ability to tell a story in song.  Take the opening song, "The Emperor's New Clothes." On this number about the search for truth the arrangement is streamlined to voice and piano. The melody is syncopated and when John sings it your are reminded of the power he achieved on his first hit, "Your Song."  The goodness doesn't stop there. He repeats the magic again on "Look Ma, No Hands," "Birds" and most of the other songs on the disc.  The standout oddball has to be "The Wasteland," with it's boogie riff stitched into this rock song's lining.  "American Triangle" is probably the most important tune to John on this release. Here he and Taupin try to draw some sense from the senseless murder of the gay student Matthew Shepard in Wyoming. Maybe because the subject matter of the song is a little too close to John and Taupin it sounds forced and preachy. That ballad is the only song that really weighs this soaring disc down.