Elton John and Leon Russell: The Union

Written by December 15th, 2010 at 7:00 am

Elton John and Leon Russell
The Union
Decca
Rating: ★★★★½

Wait, wait, wait. Come back here. It’s cool – it’s totally understandable that you saw that pair of names, said meh and wanted to skip. It’s not like Elton John hasn’t spent the last decade and change taking it upon himself to expand the possibilities inherent in the phrase ‘groan worthy,’ and Leon Russell’s career as of late hasn’t been exactly what you’d call notable. But this isn’t more Mickey Mouse crap or another half-baked excuse to tour – this is two of rock music’s greatest minds shaking off the cobwebs, dispensing with the artifice and getting down to the dirty business of making great music. The Union, with master producer T Bone Burnett behind the board, finds both artists tapping a vein that many would have considered dried up years ago.

The Union
brings up two very good points again and again: No amount of celebrity shenanigans or animated transgressions can eclipse the fact that Elton John is an absolutely amazing musician and there’s a never-ending list of reasons why Leon Russell is your favorite musician’s favorite musician. We’re talking about an album with guest spots from Neil Young, Booker T. Jones on organ, and Brian Wilson singing back up (Back-up!) The whole album, from ultra-earworm lead single “If It Wasn’t For Bad” to the triumphant gospel closer “The Hand Of Angels,” screams “Hey, you know all those classic rock clichés, well, we kinda invented them and we’re gonna remind you why they were awesome in the first place.”

Remember when all you needed for a good time was a pair of headphones, a shag rug and a good album? This is that album – fourteen songs of enveloping sound that deserves to be experienced without interruption from the outside world. Give “There’s No Tomorrow” or “Jimmie Rodger’s Dream” your undivided attention and you will be rewarded handsomely.

It goes without saying that Burnett’s production is fantastic, creating an unobtrusive foundation that lets the dueling voices and pianos of John and Russell run the show – there’s a reason the dude wins every award ever, short of taking home a trophy at the BET Hip Hop Awards. (Though, it wouldn’t be a surprise if that happened sooner rather than later. Burnett quite versatile.) But back to those pianos – and this is another argument in favor of headphone-listening – the way all 176 of those keys duke it out is like an aging prizefighter who knows that one more punch is all that separates him from the great beyond. “I Should Have Sent Roses” sums it up best when Russell drawls, “Damn you, wherever you are…” There’s a heaviness in every hit that makes their more youthful incarnations seem featherweight by comparison – and these guys have dropped some pretty heavy grooves on the world. (Lest we forget, Leon Russell was the arranger on Ike & Tina’s “River Deep Mountain High,” the, ahem, high-water mark for monster-sized pop over the last forty years. It doesn’t get much heavier than that.)

A lot has been made of John’s third-person declaration to GQ that “I don’t think Elton John will be putting any pop singles out,” but it’s not like the dude is living in a bunker in Williamsburg distributing handmade cassettes out of his courier bag. The Union broke the Top 10 of the Billboard 200 and probably will again after it racks up a few Grammys – this is still pop music, just a little older, a little wiser and lacking all the turd-polish record execs insist on slathering all over modern music.

Okay, The Union isn’t going to be the next step for any tweens recovering from Beiber Fever, but it does evoke the core principles – gospel, blues, country, and rock – of popular music over the last sixty years. There’s something to be said for connecting on a broader level than your typical flavor-of-the-moment pop song – historians are more likely to be dissecting this late-inning comeback long after “I’m Your Robot” is wiped out of our societal memory banks (Never heard Elton’s early ‘80s synth-pop catastrophe “I Am Your Robot”? Consider yourself lucky.) A decade or two from now there will still be resonance in songs like the heartbreaking Civil War dirge “Shiloh” and the beautiful, languid “Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody),” not unlike the encyclopedia of stone-cold classics that these two legends already had under their belts.

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