Elton John no longer has outrageous and colorful costumes, high-energy piano acrobatics, or the signature high tenor voice and soaring falsetto of his heyday; but his innate musicality and songwriting ability haven’t withered.
These are on full display on his 31st album, “The Diving Board.” The Rocket Man abandons the need to make hit songs and instead focuses on making well-crafted songs full of energy, reflection and pathos.
The album’s instrumentation is stripped down to the piano, bass and drums format John used in his early shows in the 1970s before he was catapulted to international music stardom. Occasionally, this setup is accompanied with other instruments, but the additions aren’t meant to add color to the sound; rather, they complement each song’s mood. This allows John’s piano and vocals to give life to Bernie Taupin’s — John’s longtime lyricist and collaborator — lyrics.
The album opens with “Ocean’s Away,” a mournful tribute to the men of World War II. The song’s elegance is its simplicity — with John solo at the piano — mixed with the right amount of introspection and sadness.
The rest of the album features a variety of styles. John gives listeners a taste of gospel, country and blues. The songs “A Town Called Jubilee” and “The Ballad of Blind Tom” hearken back to the country-folk feel and Americana theme of John’s classic 1970 album, “Tumbleweed Connection.”
Even with John’s songwriting prowess, some songs are dismissible. The literary “Oscar Wilde Gets Out” is weighed down by cryptic lyrics, while “My Quicksand” isn’t as musically engaging, despite its extended jazz solo. The lead single, “Home Again,” also gets tiresome after extended play.
What truly shows John’s talents are the three short instrumental dream interludes on the album: the first two reflect John’s classical training, while the third experiments with jazz.
The album also has three standout tracks:
First is “The New Fever Waltz,” which mixes World War I imagery and the romance of ballroom waltzing: “I was shaking with a fever / When the last good horse went down / We were just a couple dancing / Where a thousand kings were crowned.” Accompanied by horns and lush strings and featuring some of John’s best vocals to date, it is a beautiful listening experience.
Second is “Voyeur,” the one track that has a true “pop” sound and an intricate piano accompaniment similar to “Levon” and “Tiny Dancer.”
Last is the title track, a jazzy number where John croons the melody as if he was in a 1950s night club.
“The Diving Board” proves that hit singles and catchy tunes don’t make a great album —it is the songwriting ability that does. It also testifies to Elton John’s status as one of the most favorite musicians of our time.