Elton John and Leon Russell – The Union (2010)
by Nick DeRiso
Elton John’s long and often dispiriting journey back to his 1970s muse led him to an early idol, Leon Russell. The result is “The Union,” a sturdy new collaboration full of spiralling soul and timeless revelations about starting over.
Produced by T Bone Burnett and issued by Decca back in October, the album refurbishes John’s tattered legacy even as it restores the legend of Russell — a consummate musician who saw his career stalled by a stubburn refusal to play to expectations.
“I want his name written in stone,” John has said of Russell. “I want him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I want his name to be on everybody’s lips again, like it used to be.”
That sense of passage is underscored throughout “The Union,” an often-loud record with its share of quiet truths — like thundering boxcars sweeping past lonesome prairies.
They talk about good times and bad, about a lover’s bruising departure, about history’s hard-won truths, about the end. Maybe their time has come and gone.
But what a time it was.
The Band-influenced Civil War-era lament “Gone To Shiloh,” also featuring Neil Young, sounds like a leftover track from John’s brilliant “Tumbleweed Connection.” “If It Wasn’t For Bad” shambles out with a popping gospel groove and Russell’s oddly affectionate yowl — deftly recalling his best “Carny”-era work. “Monkey Suit,” this brass-driven romp written by John and longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, is like “Honky Chateau” redux.
John, who first met Russell in 1970 and later opened for him on tour, has called the legendary songwriter and pianist one of his greatest influences — and he sounds every bit the true fan on “Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes”: “Your songs have all the hooks,” John sings. “You’re seven wonders rolled into one.”
Together, they have produced an album that feels like an honest collaboration, rather than a one-off gimmick. Listen to “Hey Ahab,” which has the sway and sass of a country church-service hymn. Russell adds a just-right greasy accompaniment to John’s bracing, gritty vocal.
“When Love Is Dying,” bolstered by a soaring choral arrangement by Brian Wilson, could have been a radio staple for Elton John in a different time. (That is to say, in the time of sparkly jumpsuits and oversized sunglasses.) Russell finds a similar symmetry with his own deliciously snarky hitmaking past on “I Should Have Sent Roses,” a collaboration with Taupin: “Well if I were you,” Russell sings, “I’d throw rocks at the moon — and I’d say, ‘Damn you, wherever you are.'”
But even as they deftly recapture the atmosphere and nerve of their best early 1970s work, there is a newfound sense of last-act perspective — and an emotional turmoil so often missing in Elton’s glossy modern period.
Credit Russell, who reportedly underwent brain surgery just weeks before recording commenced on “The Union.” He adds a dangerous grandeur to tracks like “Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody), “The Hands of Angels” and, most particularly, on the majestically grim “There’s No Tomorrow,” inspired by an old blues march.
Evenings spent with old friends, even in happy times, are often built around a sweet sense of loss — and this one is no different.
Originally published at www.SomethingElseReviews.com.