Orange County Register, September 21, 2013

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Elton John & Elvis Costello: old dogs, new tricks

Ben Wener

Remarkable works find both masters pushing forward. Will their audiences follow along?

Elton John, perhaps more than anyone else from rock's greatest generation still alive and active, hasn't forgotten how to make a grand entrance.

In the '70s, of course, the legend-in-the-making – who four decades later has become a knight, an admired philanthropist and beloved gay icon – would step on stage to sing "Bennie and the Jets" and "Crocodile Rock" donning all manner of wild costumes and eyewear. It was a signature as distinct as his piano playing and then-impeccable falsetto.

Such fanciful are days are long gone – he didn't come marching into USC's Bovard Auditorium Monday night for an intimate showcase and interview decked out in Trojan finery. Yet his style is never without sparkle, and there's more elegance to how Elton at 66 reasserts himself in the public eye, as he is once again with the release next week of his impressive (if sometimes patience-demanding) 31st studio album, The Diving Board.

His sobered approach has been in place more or less since his once-rocky career rebounded in the '80s with hits like "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" and "I'm Still Standing" and that classy look-back live album with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. What followed is an ongoing second act filled with peaks: a Tony and an Oscar for The Lion King to add to six Grammys, Hall of Fame membership, untold millions from ceaseless touring and an intermittent but always sold-out Las Vegas residency.

But what has proved elusive amid those highlights is satisfying success for new material, the same pursuit that vexes virtually all of his peers.

It hasn't been for lack of trying. Five Elton John records have emerged in the past dozen years, from 2001's comeback-initializing Songs from the West Coast to this new Diving Board, the best he's made since then. Each one, including 2010's memorable Leon Russell collaboration The Union, has been ushered in as a special event, hyped to varying degrees as a return to basics like never before.

Those expectations haven't always been met, despite the music being consistently superior to most anything he's cut since the late '70s. He pushed too hard to put across the Southern-fried Peachtree Road in 2004, for instance, going so far as to open a leg of arena shows by playing almost all of it before delving into the classic stuff. It was a brave but ill-advised move that left audiences baffled or, worse, vocally upset.

Two years later, he issued The Captain & the Kid, a sequel to one of his biggest-selling works, 1975's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. It looked like a can't-miss winner on paper, and got big talk from its composer, who boasted (not entirely incorrectly) that it was among his and longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin's greatest achievements. It stiffed, his label all but abandoned it, and Elton grew deeply despondent.

"I didn't want to play again, I didn't want to record again," he told a few hundred people, mostly awestruck music students, during Monday's often inspiring interview segment.

Yet he has rebounded remarkably. In between sets of staples at USC – complementary orchestral ones like "Tiny Dancer" and "Levon" to start, smashes like "The Bitch Is Back" and "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" to finish – he unveiled five songs from his new disc, already streaming online and handed out in completed form to patrons as they exited. It was a riveting, if too-brief, showcase of beautifully bare-bones material that has brought him back from the brink of recording oblivion.

Here again was another auspicious Elton entrance timed to the release of an album accompanied by better-than-ever brags. The Diving Board is indeed one of his finer hours, a warmly captured, piano-centric return to the dramatic but soulful minimalism of Tumbleweed Connection (1970) and Madman Across the Water (1971), with a lugubrious dash of the divisive but underrated Blue Moves (1976).

It's a deeply rich listen, not at all background music. Despite several genre exercises that could stand apart – the country-tinged "Can't Stay Alone Tonight," the gospel underpinnings of "Take This Dirty Water" and the grittier "Mexican Vacation (Kids in the Candlelight)" – the entirety plays like one long mood piece, carried along by some of his most exquisite playing and passages that effectively evoke his past without getting mired in it.

It remains to be seen if it's really as "essential" as Diving Board producer T Bone Burnett suggested in his introduction Monday night. But it's definitely "a grown-up record," as Elton pointed out, "not a record by a 26-year-old who made ‘Rocket Man.' It has to be paid attention to, and you might not like it the first time around. It's reflective, mature.

"It's who I am now, not who I was then."

Will it attract an audience, however? Like David Bowie's very adult and multilayered recent release, The Next Day, it isn't apt to appeal to anyone under 40. Yet so many people over that age tend not to bother with what heroes like Elton create today, clinging instead to the records they've always loved.

That's a pattern of eroding apathy Elvis Costello started warding off almost as soon as he became famous.

The cunning phrasemaker in dark-rimmed spectacles almost instantly started ditching his early trademarks, preferring to genre-hop from honky-tonk to Stax soul to synth-pop in the '80s. Since then, when he hasn't resurrected his crueler self, he's traded ideas with talents as wide-ranging as Burt Bacharach, Paul McCartney, Allen Toussaint and the Brodsky Quartet.

Like Elton, who raves about New Zealand newcomer Lorde and recently worked with heavy rock band Queens of the Stone Age, Elvis is another champion of the younger breed – among his collaborators in the past decade have been emo-rock outfit Fall Out Boy and indie queen Jenny Lewis. And he just issued one of his boldest experiments yet, teaming with the extraordinarily versatile group the Roots (principally its drummer and de facto leader, Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson) for the remarkable collection Wise Up Ghost.

Where Elton's latest is stately and wistful, Elvis' new assortment is caustic, barbed, profoundly funky in both word and groove. An occasionally harrowing state-of-the-world address more than one pundit has shakily compared to Sly & the Family Stone's cracked masterpiece There's a Riot Goin' On, it's one of Costello's most trenchant works, biting venomously like he has only sporadically in the past 20 years.

Taken as a Roots record, albeit with a major guest star, it's among their most satisfying efforts, traditional yet innovative. Girded by Quest's in-your-chest syncopations, it's an impressionistic canvas like D'Angelo's gems from a decade ago, allowing filigree like horn punctuation and unnerving guitar effects to be lightly applied around confrontational beats and wisdom. Unintended though this outcome may be, Wise Up Ghost comes off like a darker, disillusioned counterpart to the group's more optimistic conscious party with John Legend in 2010, Wake Up!, right down to the yin-and-yang sentiments of those titles.

But what Costello's unexpectedly well-suited detour has in common with Elton's more characteristic collection is restless spirit.

Elton can't help crafting flourishes reminiscent of "Burn Down the Mission" and "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word," but he doesn't resort to rewrite. His bedrock is merely a springboard into the mindset behind the gap-toothed grin of the glitzy globetrotter – the calmer yet still uneasy feeling of a simpler man who longs to head home to his husband and kids.

Likewise, much of the brilliance of Elvis' unlikely alliance with the Roots – recorded for jazz mainstay Blue Note, another prestigious label to issue one of his titles – is how they rummage around sharper corners of his catalog to refashion some vicious but overlooked tropes.

Costello is no stranger to reinventing his songbook; Spotify the bipolar versions of "Clowntime Is Over" or the different shades of rue in his renditions of "Blue Chair" for proof. The overhauling throughout Wise Up Ghost, though, is almost unprecedented. The totalitarian menace of "Pills and Soap," for instance – one of his grimmest but most compelling pieces from the Thatcher years – is here reborn with choke-down-the-evil relevance as "Stick Out Your Tongue," creeping like a phantom GTO cruising the apocalypse.

Much of the disc's material is original, the wordsmith challenged to twist his timing and meter to fit musical forms he's only dabbled in when backed by the Attractions or the Imposters. Yet for Costellophiles, it's also a self-referencing feast, as quotable passages from neglected but tellingly titled tracks like "Invasion Hit Parade" and "Bedlam," among others, gain radicalized resonance in this Ghost-ly context.

That, like Elton's scaled-down grandeur, should be enough of an old-is-new trick to suck in longtime fans while quenching both artists' desire to hurtle forward, not stagnate. "You have to push the boundaries," Elton exhorted his collegiate crowd Monday night. "Coasting is dangerous."

In their feisty-old-men ways, both Elton's and Elvis' latest works demand to be taken as seriously by multiple generations as Arcade Fire's coming fourth foray. Yet will either of their daring attempts be noticed for more than a moment amid social-media snap judgment and consumer impatience?

Ask Bowie how that goes – six months after arriving, his first set in 10 years is widely mentioned yet a long way from going gold. Or check with Rod Stewart, whose return to rock in spring hasn't fared much better. Of that demographic, only Bruce Springsteen seems to know the secret to platinum success, and even his last two efforts didn't make that cut.

By now it's cliché to say, yet year after year it rings true: What a world when our savviest masters aren't able to turn many heads with some of the boldest music of their careers.


Orange County Register, September 21, 2013

Ben Wener reviews Wise Up Ghost and Elton John's The Diving Board.


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