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Elton John

MCA 2116
Released: July 1974
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 54
Certified Gold: 7/5/74

Elton JohnIn June Elton John signed what was reported to be the most lucrative contract ever negotiated by a recording artist. MCA, the record company involved, commemorated the event with full page ads in both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. The latter paper followed up with a story headlining Elton as "The $8 Million Man," eight million being the sum thought to be guaranteed John as royalties on his next half-dozen albums.

The magnitude of the deal was obviously inspired by the great success of Elton's previous albums. Virtually all have sold one million units, an achievement which would enable him, if he wished, to coast laxly through the next few years; but there is nothing to indicate that anyone expects him to be resting on his laurels. On the contrary, everything about the contract's announcement suggests that both parties are looking forward to even greater things from Elton John: the flowering of his art, as it were.

In effect he and his writing partner, Bernie Taupin, have been given their heads to follow whatever direction they choose. It is a luxurious imprimatur on top of the one already accorded by giant sales, and it must seem to them an ultimate declaration that what they have been doing has been "right," that by following their instincts they can do no wrong.

What John and Taupin have excelled at is the assembling of commercial sounds. Their recorded creations have been carefully constructed pop artifacts, the end product of controlled experiments in which element is added to element, a process more akin to making objects than to making music. Whatever's trendy is sure to catch their attention and find its way into their mix. They take pride in being on top of things, in writing the first astronaut single, in fashioning the definitive nostalgia hook, in marketing the timely eulogy to Marilyn. Elton John makes records in the same manner as he puts together his wardrobe and choreographs his concerts. Often what he mistakes for style is simply next month's bad taste, but discrimination does not really concern him. It needn't matter if something's grotesque; what's important is that it's new. Elton is an impresario of stance, a maestro who has presented a series of attractive aural surfaces. The trouble with surface is that it wears thin.

Caribou is not wearying in the same way as would be an album whose makers were bored with their work. Caribou is dispiriting because it "logically" extends Elton's weak strengths and strong weaknesses, the superficial powers that have taken him so far. The thin roots that kept him in touch with an organically nourishing topsoil have been sundered and at last he's on his own, fulfilling his weird hybrid nature in a self-designed hothouse where nothing but lurid display is valued.

Nearly every song on Caribou suffers from a blithe lack of focus, an almost arrogant disregard of the need to establish context or purpose. It's as if Elton and his band are so convinced of their own inherent inspiration they no longer feel the need to establish coherent moods. Shifting from sentimental to heavy to mocking, they not only fail to touch all bases but undercut what credence they might possibly have achieved.

From the first track the album displays a strange overkill which simultaneously introduces many production elements and then buries them under one another. The opener, "The Bitch Is Back," is the slickest and strongest cut on Caribou, but it lacks real punch. The combined forces of Clydie & Sherlie & Jessie & Dusty and the Tower of Power horn section fail to get his putdown-celebration of a certain sort of social pariah-piranha off the ground. And from there, it's all downhill.

"Pinky" is a love song set to a jerky syncopated melody, an ungainly tune that easily wins its battle against the words.

"Grimbsy," with tripping tempo and ricky-tik riffs, may or may not be a comic song, but the overall feel is flaccid.

"Dixie Lily," a tribute to a riverboat sung by a citizen of the swamps, achieves a level of cultural assimilation comparable to that reached by "Bobbies on bicycles two by two."

"Solar Prestige a Gammon," an Italianate nonsense song, demonstrates the stiffness which plagues Elton even in his humor.

"You're So Static," a sort of revamped "Honky Tonk Women," wanders between facetiousness and heavy metal.

"I've Seen the Saucers," someone's wistful wish to be taken away from mundanity deus ex machina, is made irrelevant by last-minute, out-of-context science fiction sounds meant to be taken seriously.

The overlong "Stinker" convincingly proves Elton John is not a soul singer.

The centerpiece fiasco, however, is the melodramatic seven-and-a-half-minute finale, "Ticking," which fails not through musical ambiguity but from an appalling combination of simplemindedness, overreaching and opportunism in the material itself. All alone at the piano (with a synthesizer adding tension), Elton "simply" unfolds this maudlin tale of a young man from a repressive background who goes berserk in a New York bar and shoots 14 people. Victim of society and a Catholic upbringing, he is a reluctant psychopath ("Promising to hurt no one, providing they were still") and when at last the fellow snaps and starts shooting, it is "with tear-filled eyes." The killings are dispensed with in half a phrase, their only apparent significance to set into motion the vindictive forces which for some reason are determined to exterminate this peculiar hero. In the presence of "the media machine" the understood murderer is cut down while surrendering, and he poetically expires in one-stanza slow-motion "on the vengeance of the law." Only in America. Queens, no less.

The selection ends, as do nearly half of the album's ten tracks, in an extended and pretentious synthesized drone. Each use of this device underscores not the intended emotion but, instead, the aridity of what has been, for one reason or another, a startlingly empty experience.

- Tom Nolan, Rolling Stone, 8/15/74.

Bonus Reviews!

When I was a boy I used to leap the stairs four at a time on Thursday nights -- what was it, eight o'clock? -- to hear the radio drama "Mr. Keene, Tracer of Lost Persons." I can still hear the announcer melting over the introduction about the kindly old investigator as the fuzzy saxophones in the background played the sentimental Noël Coward tune "Someday I'll Find You." Mr. Keene always spoke as though one nostril was permanently closed. He had an assistant named Mike who took care of the rough-and-tumble and was allowed to inject a "Saints preserve us!" when Mr. Keene found a new clue. Looking back on it now, I find Mr. Keene to have been stuffy but steady. No excitement, but at least you knew how things were going to turn out.

Thus it is with Elton John. He dabbles in music as the sleuth dabbled in murder -- strictly as an intellectual exercise. Keen had his MIke, and John has his Bernie Taupin, a lad who considers himself a poet. They collaborate, Taupin writing the words and John getting up the melodies and performances. But how bloodless it all is! Every album Elton John puts out sounds, in the end, like a reunion of English jazz critics who discovered themselves in 1937 and who new, forty years later, are recalling their youth over the vinyl legacy of a dead Dixieland trombone player.

John/Taupin (Taupin/John ?) are facile, clever, entertaining, and emotionally middle-brow. Their work here is good, lightweight English pop, but nothing more, despite all their obvious attempts to be "profound." They can, and probably will, go on forever -- which in rock-and-roll terms means the next five years. But after that? It is too soon to imagine that Taupin, having received from some university an honorary doctorate in Blithering Humanities, will cash in on the sheepskin and teach? And that Elton John will open a high-priced restaurant snuggled in some Los Angeles canyon or facing the sunset at Cannes? Saints preserve us!

- Joel Vance, Stereo Review, 10/74.

There's no shortage of rock superstars who are automatic gold record sellers and arena fillers. Elton John is one of the few whose creative force and personal flamboyance makes each new activity an event. His latest, titled for James Guercio's Colorado paradise studio where it was cut, brings in the remarkable Tower of Power horns for another classic singles collection. Elton and lyricist Taupin are alternately more antic and more heavyweight than ever, their work ranging from nonsense ditties to haunting ballads and even a Chapinesque 7:34 narrative with Elton spellbinding on unaccompanied piano and vocal, "Ticking." Best cuts: "Don't Let Sun Go Down On Me," "Stinker," "Solar Prestige A Gammon," "Dixie Lilly."

- Billboard, 1974.

I give up. Of course he's a machine, but haven't you ever loved a machine so much it took on its own personality? I was reminded of my first car, a '50 Plymouth. Then I decided Elton was more like a brand-new Impala I once rented on a magazine's money. Then I remembered that I ended up paying for that car myself. Yes, I hate the way he says "don't diszgard me" too, but "The Bitch Is Back" is my most favorite song. B+

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Enjoying the hottest career in the music business at this point, Elton John was also amazingly prolific: Caribou was his eighth LP of new, original songs to be released within four years. Finally, the pace was beginning to tell. There were the expected hits in "The Bitch Is Back" and "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me," but the rest of this album was filler, with the nonsense song "Solar Prestige A Gammon" giving testimony to the facile and vapid approach to writing John and Taupin could take in their haste. * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

"The act is going to become a little more Liberace-ized," Elton announced in Rolling Stone in 1973. "I'd like to have nine pianos onstage, a cascade of pianos, and make my entrance like that." He wasn't kidding. For Caribou, crashed out in nine days, Elton upped the candelabra ante with "The Bitch Is Back" and "I've Seen the Saucers." Caribou also has the delicate valentine "Pinky" -- but Elton made no apologies for turning on the glitz.

- Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone, 3/23/17.

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