The Bitch Is Back: Elton John’s ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’ Soars
“If I’m going to be happy, I’ve got to do an up-tempo song,” says living legend Elton John, describing the songs on his latest album, Wonderful Crazy Night. “That’s how I’m feeling at the moment, so that’s what I want to come out.”
Wonderful Crazy Night is indeed full of upbeat songs, supported by the feather-light production of T-Bone Burnett and some truly stellar playing by John and his regular touring band, which features guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson — both key ingredients of John’s remarkable, early-1970s work.
The album is further evidence that Elton John is in the midst of a late-career peak. His collaboration with 1970s legend Leon Russell on 2010′s The Union, and 2013′s exquisite, meditative The Diving Board, sit comfortably with the best of his legendary mid-70s classics, Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across the Water included.
Now comes Wonderful Crazy Night, which can only be described as a mature, 2016 model of John’s classic 1973 album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
“I’m looking up,” John says in an interview promoting Wonderful Crazy Night, citing his recent collaborations with Burnett, and his home life with husband David Furniss and two young sons, as evidence that he’s both artistically and personally fulfilled as he approaches 69 in March. “Things could not be better.”
Faced with critical acclaim, but middling sales for The Union and The Diving Board, John decided to make his latest album exactly what he wanted to hear, rather than trying again to reach for the charts, and tasked longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin with delivering songs that he could write upbeat music to. Fans got their first taste of the approach late last year when John premiered the single “Looking Up.”
“It’s the 2016 version of ‘I’m Still Standing,’ in a way,” John says of the boisterous track. “It’s about my life. It’s a really joyous song about being happy. It’s about musicality. That for me is what this music is about. It reminds me a bit of Canned Heat and southern rock and roll. This, for me, was the standout, no-brainer single.”
Even better, the song “Blue Wonderful” got its first airing in January.
“’Blue Wonderful’ was the first song that we recorded,” John explains. “I looked at the lyric and thought, ‘Oh god, this is such a great title.’ But it was just so simple to write. It came together quickly. We were off to a good start.”
And if you hear echoes of John and Taupin’s past in “Blue Wonderful,” you’re not alone.
“It reminded me a little bit of ‘Tiny Dancer,’” John admits. “It’s very Californian. That kind of vibe. It’s full of electric guitars; very West Coast-y. Again, it was very quick to write, and it turned out exactly the way I wanted it.”
The title track is also a keeper, with John’s familiar roller-coaster piano making it sound like a distant – if grown-up – cousin to “Honky Cat” or “Benny and the Jets,” while standing fully apart and on its own at the same time.
“When I got the lyric to ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’, which is the second song I wrote for the album, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a) a great title for the record, and b) it’s got to be up-tempo with that lyric.’ So this was the template, really, for the album. After we finished that track I had no problem writing up-tempo tracks. The floodgates opened after that.”
It also has a great live feel. John credits Burnett with the glistening production on Wonderful Crazy Night, but credits his longtime touring band for the undeniable dynamic that only musicians who love playing together can bring to the table.
“It’s a very piano-based track, with acoustic guitar, organ, bass, and drums,” John explains. “That’s all it is. But it’s got a great groove. I wanted this to sound like my band. I was so happy, because my band played on the whole record – my stage band – who hadn’t played on a record for a long time.”
But even with the excitement his touring band brought to the proceedings, and the lighter mood of the music John and Taupin strove to deliver, Wonderful Crazy Night is still full of the trademark storytelling that the pair cut their teeth on.
“When Bernie gave me the lyric to ‘I’ve Got 2 Wings,’ I had no idea that this person existed, Elder Utah Smith,” John confesses about the song written from the point of view of the real-life Southern preacher who attracted a following by playing electric guitar and wearing wings during his sermons.
“Then T-Bone said this guy really existed, and Bernie showed me the YouTube footage of him with the wings. It made the song even better to write, because this guy was something else. [He was] this beautiful, wonderful black preacher who went into the church with a little amplifier, an electric guitar, and played with these wings on. Wow, that’s something.
“Music brings people together. When you hear music in a church, no matter whether it’s sacred music, gospel music, blues music, or anything, it has a certain resonance that brings people together. It’s very moving. Writing this song, ‘I’ve Got 2 Wings,’ it was very important that I knew [the story] beforehand.”
Johnstone lends a beautiful, chiming electric 12-string guitar to the otherwise bluesy “Claw Hammer” but, according to John, it’s the piano that really drives the songs.
“It’s just that riff, and that’s how the whole thing started,” says John. “That was a piano riff. All the riffs are piano riffs that are then adapted to the guitar or whatever. But the riff is so great. I just love that riff!”
The song also takes liberty from John’s usual template to explore other sonic avenues.
“It starts off one way and goes another way, and at the end it goes berserk and very funky, with Kim Bullard playing incredible brass parts on the synthesizer – which you think are real brass – because the samples are so good,” John explains in the interview promoting Wonderful Crazy Night.
“It’s my Peter Gabriel moment, probably. Peter Gabriel’s records were always influential on me because he used so many different instruments. You wouldn’t think at the end of ‘Claw Hammer’ that you’d get a brass section coming in. Then the brass comes in and it really lifts the whole ending of the track. It starts off one way – a bit Steely Dan-ish – and then it goes another way, and ends up Peter Gabriel-ish. And Elton John-ish! What can I tell you? It’s certainly a track that by the end of it you wouldn’t have thought it would go there when you listened to the first eight bars. That’s what I love about that track.”
The beautiful “A Good Heart” is another song that combines very different influences that aren’t normally brought together.
“’Good Heart’ is the big ballad on the record,” John says proudly of the track that channels both his love of The Beatles and vintage soul music.
“I love this track. It’s probably become my favorite track on the album. I wasn’t so keen on it at first. Then we put the brass on it and it all came together. And the guitar playing is phenomenal. It’s like a Steve Cropper kind of guitar sound; something you would hear on an old Stax record. I love the way I sing it and the way it builds. You can imagine it on stage. It’s very powerful, a very powerful song.”
But perhaps picking a favorite track from Wonderful Crazy Night is like picking a favorite child: Impossible. No sooner had he sited “Good Heart” as his top pick than he name-checked “In The Name Of You” as another favorite.
“’In The Name Of You’ is one of my favorite tracks, I just love the way the song builds,” John proclaims. “The chorus to me is so hook-y. Every song on the album has two or three hooks in it, whether it’s a riff or a chorus or a verse. But ‘In The Name Of You’ is full of hooks. That’s the first real guitar-based track that we recorded. It has a funky intro, and then in the chorus the 12-strings come rattling in. A lot of it is kind of a throwback to the ’70s in a way, but it sounds modern too. And it sounds a bit Little Feat-ish, that track, to me.”
For all of the gifts that Wonderful Crazy Night delivers, John makes it clear that it was easy to make.
“Nothing was complicated,” he says, summing up perhaps another career defining album. “Everything was done more or less the same day. It was written in the morning and finished by six. That’s the way we did it.”
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Frequent TIDAL contributor Jeff Slate is a New York City-based solo singer-songwriter and music journalist. His writing appears regularly in Esquire, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He has interviewed and written intimate portraits of everyone from Led Zeppelin and The Clash to Monty Python and David Bowie. He is an avid collector of rock ‘n’ roll books and bootlegs and has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Dylan and The Beatles.
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