New Listen: Elton John & Leon Russell’s ‘The Union’

Artist: Elton John & Leon Russell
Album: The Union (2010)

For a little change of pace, this album is not only a new listen for me, but for everyone.  Being the Elton John fan I am, I had to go out and snatch it up on its release date last Tuesday.  (Note: I’m familiar with some of Russell’s work specifically, but mostly I’m coming at this from an Elton-centric perspective.)  I must say I was a little leery at first – this album received much hype over the last few months. That, coupled with Elton’s overall new material throughout the last decade or so, made me wonder if it could actually meet its expectations.  Luckily for this listener, it exceeds them.

First, it’s worth noting that I often take issue with fans or critics that constantly live in the past.  Overall this album has received quite positive reviews, but occasionally you’ll come across someone complaining it’s not the same as such early EJ efforts Tumbleweed Connection (1970, perhaps my personal favorite), Elton John (1970), or Honky Chateau (1972), or Russell’s early work.  Of course it’ll be different – forty years have passed for the performers!  Artists constantly evolve.  If you don’t like a new direction, that’s understandable, but I’m always amazed when people are disappointed by those who don’t constantly repeat the past.  (Yet, I’m sure those same folks would complain about just artists who only did one “thing.”)  Anyway, this album may not make you think it’s the late 1960s or early 1970s, but it does display a strong influence of their early styles, and it does so quite well.  That being said, for Elton fans reading this post, consider this album to be a nice combining of the styles of Tumbleweed Connection and The Captain and The Kid (2006).  [This topic of living in the past will likely come up again and again; it’s a source of great frustration.]

The major players here are Elton John and Leon Russell, obviously, and also Bernie Taupin – John’s career-spanning lyricist – and producer T Bone Burnett.  Without getting too much into the album’s lore, Russell was a great influence on Elton’s early career, both stylistically and in featuring him as an opening acts in the early ’70s.  Since then, Elton had wanted to collaborate and pay tribute to his idol.  The end result is a nice rock-country-gospel hybrid with a modern twist.  The ensemble here is substantial: standard rock rhythm section, two pianos (John, Russell), full horn section, various keyboards and guitars, and gospel choir.  Also, special appearances are made by Neil Young, Robert Randolph, Booker T.,and Brian Wilson.  Overall there’s a pretty big sound present, however the mix oddly buries the pianos at times.  (Unusual, considering they involved a very in-demand producer – you’d think someone would have caught that.)  For variety, the instrumentation changes somewhat throughout, and also John and Russell distribute vocal duties nicely.  While trading verses and sharing choruses on many of the album’s songs, they also each have “solo” numbers, with the other joining in on backing vocals for the chorus.  (Even though Elton sings at a lower octave nowadays, he’s the stronger voice here, and often takes over when it gets high or powerful.)

Though there is an overall aesthetic, the songs themselves vary stylistically.  They range from those on the far end of the country/gospel spectrum – “A Dream Come True” and “Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream” – to groove-based rock/gospel – “Hey Ahab” and “I Should Have Sent Roses” – to funky country-rock a la Tumbleweed Connection – “My Kind of Hell” and “Monkey Suit” – to more pop-based fare – “Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody),” “Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes,” and the über-ballad “When Love Is Dying.”  As for the special guests mentioned above, perhaps the best part is that there’s no real song and dance about it when one does appear.  It’s mentioned in the liner notes, but not next to song titles (e.g., “with special guest”).  As you listen to the album, occasionally you’ll hear a new/different voice or instrument (Young or Randolph, for example) and likely recognize it, but it won’t at all be jarring or take you out of the listening experience.  Each one fits; they’re only used when necessary, which is the best way to use musical guests.  As an Elton fan, perhaps the biggest issue with the album is that a few of the songs sound like chordal reworkings of a few numbers from The Captain and The Kid.  However, all I can say to that is that the songs on The Union are much better – consider them improved second drafts.

For the old-school “purists”/enthusiasts, perhaps this album is disappointing because there is a touch of modern Elton. However this is mostly laced with the styles that made him initially famous and solidified his status as a rock legend.  The best part of this album is that is sounds FUN.  Yes, I imagine there were many separate takes and overdubs (there’s often more science than magic in recording studios), but the end result sounds like one big ensemble having a genuinely fun time in the studio.  It’s an infectious feeling that’ll pull you in if you just let it.

(NOTE: I purchased the CD/DVD version, which does include bonus tracks.  FYI in case you come across an album missing a song title or two.)

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