When Elton John throatily croons ”I believe in love” on ”Believe,” the first single from Made In England, his sincerity is palpable: Once again, after a quarter-century of fighting this good fight, he has vanquished the awesome banality of Bernie Taupin’s lyrics to achieve a catchy pop ballad. Catchy pop ballads are John’s stock-in-trade; he’s made so many hits over the years that we’ve come to take his skills for granted. But Made in England acts as a refresher course in Eltonia; it recapitulates virtually every phase of his career and compels a listener to appreciate just what the man-belittled as the ”Liberace of rock”-is capable of doing.
As a commercial force, John’s faith in love has never had a surer foundation. ”Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” the soaring melody with the treacly Tim Rice lyric from The Lion King, recently snared John a Grammy award for Best Male Pop Vocal, and it’s likely he’ll cop an Oscar very shortly as well, since, of the five Best Original Song nominees, three are John’s tunes from the 7-million-selling Lion King soundtrack.
Between this movie success and the money-sprouting tour he’s been conducting with that other ostentatious piano man, Billy Joel, John’s position in the ’90s rock economy is assured. But John has always taken the phrase ”pop artist” at full value. He craves popularity, sure-that’s where all the goofy glasses, silly costumes, and consummate showmanship come in-but he’s also long been driven to prove his artistry, as if it weren’t enough that he has created a stack of endlessly listenable hit singles whose quality transcends pop fashion and fad.
One reason Made in England gets you thinking of John’s earlier work is that the new collection reunites him with arranger Paul Buckmaster, who collaborated on John’s first half-dozen albums. Buckmaster’s orchestrations have always swelled with genial windbaggery-remember the overstated down- homeyness that made ”Country Comfort” (from 1971’s Tumbleweed Connection) such a ripe pleasure? That song finds its long-lost brother here in ”Latitude,” a lilting waltz with a chorus in which Elton harmonizes cozily with himself, as Buckmaster’s overworked horn section honks solemnly in the background.
Still, there’s no denying that Buckmaster, when applying his work to John’s peppery melodies, creates a few lovely moments. ”Please” plays like an early Beatles ballad, and there’s an astringent terseness to ”House” that renders it one of John’s best I’m-lonely-please-hug-me songs. Another stand-out is ”Pain,” which deploys a classic Elton strategy: a jaunty tune describing something unhappy, in the manner of ”Sad Songs (Say So Much)” and ”I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” In this case, ”Pain” commences with some Rolling- Stonesy rock guitar chords and shifts into a spiffy toe-tapper with an energy that neatly contradicts such yelled sentiments as ”Where were you born?/In the state of fear” and ”I am the air/I am pain.” Elton is lively; Bernie is hot gas.
In general, Made in England finds John-these days sporting a cute brown Chia-pet hairdo and grinningly publicizing his fifth straight year of drug- free creativity-in darn good shape; as usual, it’s his lyricist’s work that seems flabby. There’s a deceptive slimness in the collection’s many one-word song titles, and the vocabulary is kept simple, but this proves its own form of pretentiousness. The curious composition that is the title song consists of Taupin ghostwriting John’s autobiography, complete with winceable lines about how much the young Elton liked Little Richard and Elvis Presley-oh, excuse me, ”that sweet Georgia Peach/And the boy from Tupelo.” Other low points: ”Belfast” (you might as well take political advice from Jerry Lewis as from Bernie Taupin); ”Man” (”Have a little faith in man” is its big observation-in general, I do; it’s Taupin in particular that I despair of); and ”Lies,” with its chugging ”Philadelphia Freedom” rhythm rip-off and pointless lyrical references to A Streetcar Named Desire and Sweet Bird of Youth. ”I could be great like Tennessee Williams,” Taupin has John singing.
Elton-stop, think, and give yourself some credit: You already are.