Elton John
Madman Across the Water
(Rocket 314-528 161-2)

It's quite odd how Elton John has been appropriated by classic rock radio. He's a staple artist of the format, yet he seems to be approached mainly as a singles artist, while in reality he has a much more formidable catalog of appealing and interesting albums than most of the artists played by these freakin' tired-ass stations.

The repackaged Rocket CDs from a couple years back helped direct me back to his records as a whole, and it's great stuff, always fresh sounding. Madman Across the Water was released in 1971, just slightly before he hit megastar status. It's a damn good album, though not quite up to the level of the masterpieces Goodbye Yellow Brick Road or Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.

It has a prevailing epic grandeur to it, with longish song lengths and lush orchestral arrangements, and I'm of course a miserable sucker for such things. There are a couple clunkers, but he was finding his way, you hypercritical pricks!

Not that he doesn't open things impressively enough. It's hard to top starting an album with "Tiny Dancer" and "Levon." The former is always a pleasure, still lovely and affecting while managing to rock a tiny bit, has managed to beat the rap of being an overplayed rock song (which begs the question: has there ever been a rap song called "Beat the Rap"? There should be).

"Levon" is a winter/Christmas song (I always get all wistful and goopy over seasonal-type things), which combined with its sweeping string section wins me over every time despite lyrics that are a bit overwrought. "Razor Face" is somewhat of a stumble; the lyrics seem to be going somewhere at first, and then lose me. And the song ain't all that catchy either, though it does feature prog rock's own Rick Wakeman on organ. Unsurprisingly he can't resist wanking around on in the last minute of the song, despite some notably tasteful playing earlier. (Fragile, alas, would be released one short year later. Taste at that point, out the f'n window.)

Wakeman plays again on the powerful title track, which follows. This has to be one of the spookier and more ominous tracks in Elton's songbook, about a million times more menacing than the "eerie" opening strains of the more famous "Funeral for a Friend." It sucks me in each and every time.

"Indian Sunset" follows, which is another grand epic, and a fairly overlooked one. Yes, it chooses as its topic the plight of the Iroquois in the face of America's westward expansion (good ol' Bernie Taupin – say, there really should also be a song called "Good Ol' Bernie Taupin") … at any rate Elton pulls it off with élan. I still get all wrapped up in it when he sings "I heard from passing renegades Geronimo was dead/He'd been laying down his weapons when they filled him full of lead." You tell the bastards, Elton!

Um, yes, well. A couple mediocrities come next: "Holiday Inn" is pleasant but kind of lame, and "Rotten Peaches" ain't good at all. Nothing like using bad fruit as a metaphor for prison life. Symbolism! Yeah!! Things improve with the sweeping "All the Nasties," which from the title you'd think would have a "Honky Cat" kind of vibe, but it's nothing of the sort. The album closes with the aptly titled "Goodbye," which is brief (under two minutes) but effective melancholia. Can be likened to "Harmony" on Yellow Brick Road in this respect.

Unfortunately there are no bonus tracks, as on some of the other reissued albums. The nine-minute outtake version of "Madman Across the Water," recorded a year before with Mick Ronson on guitar, turns up on Tumbleweed Connection. Still, there are many goodies to be found here. And anyway, stop listening to Bad Company, ya twit.

Review by HIP