Friday, June 26, 2009



Already established as an incredibly productive and talented song writers, the John (music)/Taupin (lyrics) collaboration crafted a fairly downbeat, introspective fourth record. Three of these selections would go on to receive gratuitous airplay over time, though none were hits upon release. No matter, this is an exceptional album that had a minor-key feel which would not be duplicated in subsequent projects.

Before larger than life stage costumes and wretched excess propelled Elton John into mass consciousness as a huge star, there was a non-descript working musician who gave voice to quietly beautiful material. Much of what comprises this set falls into that category. "Tiny Dancer" opens strong, creating subtle tension by extending the verse in a manner that builds expectation in the listener's brain, only to dash it by not jumping to the chorus in a traditional manner. More effective still is the way the pace slows, just a touch, before breaking out of the straightjacket with the falsetto driven hook. Memorably rendered here in 1971.

In a powerful bit of sequencing, "Levon" appears as the next track. Blessed with another ear catching tune, the lyrics are somewhat unfathomable, though they don't detract from the strength of the composition. The one-two punch of these songs is driven home by the emotive vocal performances, tasteful playing and clean production, courtesy of the late, great Gus Dudgeon.

Everything you'll encounter here is engaging, though a slight sadness permeates the material. Dramatic string arrangements shade the title track, which opens with the sharp, stop-start figure on acoustic guitar, punctuated by harmonics, which is then doubled on piano. Can't heap enough praise on an idea that almost fades out mid-song, only to come roaring back with a riff that manages to remain quite hypnotic (as opposed to boring). My vote for the best of the pack, which is saying something considering the high quality maintained throughout.

Interesting musical interludes abound, with a smattering of proggy synth dropped into "Rotten Peaches" , the predominant mandolin touches of the road weary "Holiday Inn" and the gospel flavored backing vocals that take "All the Nasties" to an epic end. "Goodbye" closes the set with an aural question mark. Achingly brief, inscrutable and decorated with strings, Elton delivers a typically passionate vocal.

Madman Across the Water, though uniformly excellent, is not distinguished by flashy, hard rocking fare. The mood is much more in step with the softer tones of the singer-songwriter movement that was quickly gaining a foothold in the marketplace of the early seventies. Despite this, there is still a sense that the artist is treading experimental ground in places. Highly enjoyable on every level, it is fairly underrated when compared with what would soon follow.

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