Sunday, February 10, 2013

Blue Moves

It’s easy to write about great or awful albums.  Some albums have struck me like lightning bolts, while others, particularly those by artists I respect, have let me down so severely that I vowed never to buy the artist’s albums again on sight.  That was a big deal for me when I was growing up.  There were certain artists that if I saw a new album, I bought it, no questions asked.

But what about those albums that weren’t really bad, but never quite achieved what they set out to do?  At the time, they received luke-warm reviews by critics, but over the years have been reconsidered, sometimes to the point of being placed as one of the artist’s finer albums (which I rarely agree with).  I’m always amazed at music message boards with a broad spectrum of fans, the way you can pick the most obtuse, troubling songs or albums by an artist, and some nutcase from Minnesota will chime in, hey, that’s my favorite album!  Someone out there, I assure you, his favorite Beatles song is “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”

Elton John’s Blue Moves album is one of those problematic albums that, for some odd reason, resonates emotionally with me to this day, but I can still recognize, as I did when I broke open the wrapper on the night of Christmas Eve, 1976, that the album is desperately uneven.  Even sitting here now, years and miles removed from my old bedroom, I still vividly recall my bedroom light shining on the cellophane, as I had just taken my Christmas album booty (a 70s ritual for me once I was old enough to get into albums) upstairs for a listen though my Radio Shack Nova 40s while I sat intently on my bed, reading the lyrics and musician line-up on each track, and thinking, after an hour or so, “Man, this is the strangest Elton John album I’ve ever heard.”

The album was very much a product of the 70s, adults in the 70s, which was a huge switch for Elton John as his music didn’t feel so age-specific before this.  This album felt like a mildly depressed man feeling his way around a world on the verge of collapsing.  It felt weird to a kid like me, like Woody Allen’s first attempts at making dramas instead of comedies.  I didn’t quite get it and felt out of my depth.  Now that I do get it, I still feel weird listening to the album.  I’ve since grown to love adult musicians making music for adults – think any Loudon Wainwright album – but back then, one of his albums would have made absolutely no sense to me.  (I now consider Wainwright one of the most honest, least-affected songwriters of the last 50 years.)

Even that odd cover, a blue-themed painting of people relaxing in a park, looks disjointed.  The lead single from the album, “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” was a mouthful, and sad ballad which set the mood for an album.  It wasn’t unusual for Elton to make an album’s lead-off single a ballad (“Someone Saved My Life Tonight” being the best example), but the concept with lead-off singles in the 70s was to introduce a blockbuster pop song that would alert the world to this vibrant new collection of songs.  “Sorry” was more like walking in on someone crying in a darkened room after a bad break-up.

I used to work with a Russian woman who had that song pegged on her MP3 collection on her hard drive.  Every few days, I’d hear that wistful melody, and it’s not hard to understand how someone from Eastern Europe would take to a song like this, that sort of ornate, jewelry-box melody, especially when the vibraphone comes in on the instrumental passage.  A fucking vibraphone solo!

The album itself kicked off with an inconsequential instrumental, “You Started For.”  I’m listening to it now … a forgettable  track that should not be leading off an album.  You have to wonder what these guys were thinking, as so much thought goes into track listing in the studio, and the lead-off track should make a definitive statement on how the album sounds and feels.

But after that comes “Tonight,” a sweeping orchestral ballad that underscores the album’s theme of personal disintegration.  The lyrics are a man complaining to his significant other that he’s tired of fighting before they go to bed at night.  This was the world’s introduction to James Newton Howard, who did the orchestral arrangement, but has gone on to compose the scores for dozens of Hollywood blockbusters.

I heard this song, and thought, “That’s more like it.”  This was getting into “Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me” territory.  But these two opening songs demonstrate the wildly uneven quality the rest of the album has.  What we tend to forget about Elton John is that up through that album, his work schedule was unbelievable.  Forget about putting out albums ever few years.  He was often putting out two albums a year and touring extensively.  If not two albums, then double albums like this and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.  And nothing against him, Bernie Taupin or his band, but you put out that much material, unless you’re The Beatles, there’s bound to be a lot of filler (not to mention the Beatles insane album-release schedule didn't involve lengthy, exhausting tours after 1966). 

The next track, “One Horse Town” is another example of the album’s confusion.  What is it?  A rocker?  A moody, mid-tempo number?  The lyrics are about being raised in a small town in Alabama where nothing ever happens … yet the music has a full orchestra in “rock” mode, synthesizers, howling guitar solos, insistent percussion.  It’s a mess of a song that can’t decide what it wants to be.  The crucial element of the Elton John/Bernie Taupin songwriting duo was that Taupin would first write the lyrics and then with very little editing, John would craft a melody to fit the lyrics, and more often than not hit on the exact feel Taupin had in mind for the song.  A song this clearly disconnected from the lyrics was a sign that things were drifting off between them.

But then there are the ballads.  I’m sure he’s written some bad ones along the way (particularly after this time period), but back then you couldn’t go wrong with an Elton John ballad, a creative format he clearly loved.  “Chameleon” is one of those many album tracks of his that was never a single, never attained legend of any sort, but is just a good, solid ballad.  I didn’t see the connection at the time, but Elton would later go on to say how much he was influenced by “Surf’s Up” era Brian Wilson.  It’s all over the background vocals on this and so many other songs.  He would even use the same background vocalists as the Beach Boys, including (Captain and) Toni Tennille.

That’s side one, but each side presents the same hit-or-miss mix of mediocre album tracks and the occasional gem.  Side two has “Cage the Songbird” which, much like the title track from Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, features acoustic guitar as the lead instrument, and in this case has David Crosby and Graham Nash providing background vocals.  It was released a single and tanked, probably because it was so unusual sounding for an Elton John single.  It should have been a hit, a corollary to “Candle in the Wind.”  But for every “Tonight” and “Cage the Songbird” there are tracks like “Boogie Pilgrim” and “Crazy Water” that are b-side material at best and only weighed down the album with their mediocrity. 

The only up-tempo track that fully works is the last one, “Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance),” and even that one feels strange.  The age of disco was just starting to take off in 1976 but hadn’t become the suffocating, dominant trend it would be in 1977.  He’d already had hit singles with “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” as a duet with Kiki Dee and “Philadelphia Freedom,” both non-album tracks.  We like to think of disco as this sprightly, light form of music, but many disco tracks featured full orchestras, horn sections, and backgrounds vocalists (sometimes even a choir), a trend that started with artists like Isaac Hayes and Barry White building these huge productions in the early 70’s.

“Bite Your Lip” was not a hit, barely scraping the Top 30 in the U.S., despite being one of his better funk-leaning songs.  The song represented the end of an era, as he and Bernie Taupin would split up after this for a few years, leaving Elton to struggle through a few mediocre albums before starting another string of hit singles in the 80s.  That next album, A Single Man, marked the end of my “buy artist’s material on sight” phase for me and Elton John.  The album felt so bland and half-hearted after that steady run of good-to-great albums he had up to that point.

Blues Moves wasn’t much better, but for some reason maintains that “Elton John in his prime” aura, even if it’s the twilight of his first run.  Maybe I feel so strongly about it because the first album I ever bought was Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, probably no more than a year earlier (despite the album being released in 1974 … I wasn’t old enough to buy albums!).

I’d wager both albums are presented as bookends of Elton John at his best and worst, but that’s not really true.  There’s a lot of down time on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but the high points are that much higher that the album in general feels that much stronger.  As with most double albums, legendary or not, GYBR would have made one hell of a single album, probably his best, but for whatever reason, the artist and record company decided a double album would work.  It was a huge commitment for a record company to do this, adding that much more basic costs to the production and shipping of the album, running on the healthy wager that the artist was popular enough for fans to spend the extra money on two records (and they surely did in both cases).

I’ve described one situation with that album here.  And it wasn’t like “Jamaica Jerk Off” was the only clunker on the album.  Side 1 is legendary (“Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” “Candle in the Wind” and “Bennie and the Jets”).  But most of Sides 2, 3 and 4 are filler, but do have songs like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Sweet Painted Lady,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and “Harmony” to raise the level.  Again, the problem was Elton John was flooding the market with so much material that a recognizable chunk of it was bound to be 70s album-track fodder: half-hearted stabs at funk, rock songs that didn’t rock and the occasional foray into reggae and country that lacked sincerity.  (But sound like backwoods country now compared to what country music has become.)

Blue Moves was the same formula, save with diminishing returns, and the general vibe among the creative team being a dismal sense of a long-term relationship fading apart.  It was too much for a 12-year-old kid to handle!  What in the hell did I know about dissolving friendships and extended gloom at that age?  Thankfully, very little.  I didn’t know what “complicated” meant.  I still don’t.  People tend to use this word when they want to hide the fact that they’re self-absorbed assholes.  No.  They’re “complicated.”  Elton John and Bernie Taupin were feeling complicated towards each other.  Was it drugs?  Fame and that separating sense of who was responsible for what in terms of their success?

Whatever it was, these guys weren’t kicking and screaming.  They were much more English than that and simply clocked in with this mannered, mildly depressed album to demonstrate that the gears were no longer clicking.  The idea of people breaking up crushed me as a kid, starting with The Beatles, of course, but any time a band member died (Who, Led Zep), or bands came apart (which really didn’t happen all that much in the 70s, no matter how much band members hated each other), it felt like a personal affront, how could they, don’t they know how much we fans care about them?  I’ve since realized that all bands go forth with some level of dysfunction, some band members openly despising each other, but more often than not, people who have simply spent so much time around each other, over the course of decades that, well, they’re just tired of each other’s company.

It even happens to wealthy rock stars!  Before I’d become an adult and enter into a few fading relationships, personal or romantic, where things just went quietly wrong and faded apart, Elton John, most likely inadvertently, did a nice job of outlining how that felt, not like the world was going to end, but that it was just going to get a little dark for awhile, and things weren’t going to go my way for the near future.  That was some heavy shit for a 12-year-old kid to assimilate … and I’m glad I didn’t, as this album made no sense to me at the time.  I’d have plenty of time to figure it out.


buzzbabyjesus said...

I've enjoyed your comments elsewhere. You just left the address at Sal's, so I'm checking it out. BTW I still have my Nova 40's.

My blog which I update on an irregular basis can be found at:

big bad wolf said...

i too arrive here from sal's, where i have found your comments almost invariably the best on any thread. glad there is more of you to read.

William S. Repsher said...

Thanks to both you guys for checking in with kind words. Sal's site is gathering place for serious music fans, just as NYCD was in its time, so I guess the more things change ... well, they don't stay the same, otherwise Sal would still be making a living as a record store owner. But so long as there's music, we'll always have something to carry on about. I guess stories and sites like what we're doing are just extensions of that vibe we all knew so well.