Released: August 1970
Chart Peak: #4
Weeks Charted: 51
Certified Gold: 2/17/71
The major problem with Elton John is that one has to wade through so much damn fluff to get to Elton John. Here, by the sound of it, arranger Paul Buckmaster's rather pompous orchestra was spliced in as an afterthought to flesh out music that had sufficient muscle to begin with, their choirs and Moogs and strings threaten to obscure Elton's voice and piano, everywhere that they appear at least momentarily diverting the listener's attention therefrom. Those acquainted with producer Gus Dudgeon's briliant work with the Bonzos have ample reason to be mightily disillusioned with the good fellow for the excesses he allowed to run rampant here.
But don't be scared away, for so immense a talent is Elton's that he'll delight you senseless despite it all. He's equally affective belting gospely rock and roll raves like "Take Me To The Pilot" and the already much-covered "Border Song" (neither of which one can resist leaping up heatedly to boogie to) in a tuneful snarl and intoning pretty McCartneyesque ballads like "Your Song," "I Need You To Turn To," or "First Episode at Heinton" in a warm, intimate and wonderfully sympathetic tenor. In "No Shoestrings on Louise," a respectful send-up of the Stones' "Dear Doctor," he manages to sound like the perfect synthesis of all the luminaries mentioned above without once removing his tonge from against his cheek. And the orchestra was needed on neither "Sixty Years On" nor "The King Must Die," for on both his voice creates sufficient drama on its own.
A few warranted words on the album's words, by Bernie Taupin. He all too often opts for the consciously poetic/arty where the straightforward would tend to do better. Taupin's definitely his most bearable when, as in "The Greatest Discovery" or "Heinton," he's too busy narrating specific emotions and experiences for us to think about concealing his sentimentality with poetistic tricks. Rock and roll has too few unabashed sentimentalists writing songs as it is: let it all hang out, Bernie.
If we can somehow discover another Elton John and coerce the Move to release their new album in the next few weeks, 1970 may yet escape going down as a not terribly good year for rock and roll.
- John Mendelsohn, Rolling Stone, 11-12-70.
Obviously, new blood was -- and is -- needed. It's beginning to arrive, but slowly -- oh, so slowly. In a rare moment of prescience, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Elton John (along with James Taylor, Neil Young, Loudon Wainwright III, and others) may be the vanguard of the next major creative push in pop music with his new album on the Uni label. Like all aesthetic scene-changers, John, a young English singer-pianist, sums up the past, turns it around to reflect his own image, and winds up with something fresh and new: the brash vitality of Fifties rock-&-roll with the musical sophistication and lyric sensitivity of the late Sixties
John (real name: Reginald Dwight) writes the music for his songs to words by a brilliant young lyricist named Bernie Taupin. The songs are, quite simply, among the best I've heard in I don't know how long. They flow with the familiar harmonic cadences of rock, but every now and then John flips everything upside down, hitting us with an unexpected chord or unprepared modulation; then, just as suddenly, he swings back to a blues pattern or some other familiar pop-music point of reference.
Taupin's lyrics (he refuses to call them poetry) are exquisitely well-crafted and sensitive to small gestures and subtle feelings in a way that is almost non-existent in other popular music. The love songs -- "Your Song," "I Need Youto Turn To," "First Episode at Hienton" -- are simple and direct, uncluttered by the guile that too often passed for sophistication in the love songs of an earlier era. Another song, "The Greatest Discovery" (the only one that Taupin originally wrote as a poem), expresses the sense of wonder that a small child feels when he first sees his "...brand new baby brother." "Border Song" so perfectly captures the essence of gospel-soul that it was recorded almost immediately by Aretha Franklin.
Incredibly, John performs these carefully structered pieces with the aggressive élan of a revived Jerry Lee Lewis. In his live performances he rolls on the floor, stands on top of the piano, and brings back the hell-raising, flashy show-biz gimmickry of the Fifties. And it works -- brilliantly -- because the material is so good that it benefits from, and is expanded by, the funky aliveness of the performances.
Little of that raucousness is evident here, however, since John stays in a fairly low-key frame of mind for this recording. (An earlier one has never been released in the U.S., and a third is due momentarily.) The string arrangements by Paul Buckmaster are absolutely superb -- the most sympathetic scoring since George Martin's work for the Beatles.
- Don Heckman, Stereo Review, 2/71.
The British performer/composer comes up with one of the top LP's of the week, both creatively and commercially. His song, "Border Song," now receiving much attention, is featured, along with exceptional, original material such as the ballad beauty, "I Need You To Turn to," and the compelling "Sixty Years On." The superb arrangements of Paul Buckmaster are as creative as the material of John and cowriter Bernie Taupin.
- Billboard, 1970.
A lot of people consider John a future superstar, and they may be right; I find this overweening (semi-classical ponderousness) and a touch precious (sensitivity on parade). It offers at least one great lyric (about a newborn baby brother), several nice romantic ballads (I don't like its affected offhandedness, but "Your Song" is an instant standard), and a surprising complement of memorable tracks. But their general lack of focus, whether due to histrionic overload or sheer verbal laziness, is a persistent turnoff. B
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
The first of Elton's 1970 releases (the other being Tumbleweed Connection), it introduced American audiences to his chunky piano, enthusiastic vocals, and the juxtaposition of yearning ballads with all-out production rockers. It was obviously a formula whose time had come. The musicianship is polished and tight; the Gus Dudgeon production precise and complementary, all of which resulted in a massively appealing pop product. John's recorded work has always been notable for its sound quality, and given the vintage of this material, it doesn't sound that bad on compact disc. That doesn't mean that compression and occasional harshness aren't evident; they are, but detailing and dynamics are also improved. B-
- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.
Ironically, Elton John's breakthrough album (and U.S. debut) is uncharacteristic of his other work, heavily featuring Paul Buckmaster's dramatic string arrangements. John is never overwhelmed by strings or choirs and turns in some powerful performances. Contains "Your Song." * * *
- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
Elton John doesn't exactly look like a rock star on the cover of his U.S. debut album. But he does have the tunes, with Paul Buckmaster's orchestrations and Bernie Taupin's llyrics, on piano ballads such as "Your Song" and the enigmatic rocker "Take Me to the Pilot." Elton John has been a rock star ever since.
Elton John was chosen as the 468th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.
- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.
(2008 Deluxe Edition) Elton John was a lot of things -- sideman, session man and flop, with a long tail of failed solo releases, including the 1969 LP Empty Sky -- before 1970's Elton John made him an overnight star. On the new Mercury/UMe/Rocket reissue, the extras actually trump the baroque strings and hippie-gospel chorales that crowded "Sixty Years On" and "Take Me to the Pilot." Sripped-bare demos of nearly every song on the record included on a second CD highlight the '68 Beatles and '58 Jerry Lee Lewis in John's voice and piano. * * * *
- David Fricke, Rolling Stone, 9/4/08.
Elton was still finding his voice as a buttoned-down singer-songwriter. This album gave him his first hit with "Your Song," but other highlights, including "Take Me to the Pilot," show off his weirdo side. And the gospel-blues piano raunch of "No Shoe Strings on Louise" might even have helped inspire the ballads on Side Two of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street.
- Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone, 3/23/17.
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