By Chris Willman
Updated September 18, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Elton John: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Anyone heralding a new Elton John album as a return to form faces credibility issues. (You may recall the ”Elton’s back!” scare around 2001’s Songs From the West Coast.) But it’s not crying wolf to warn you that Captain & the Kid is EJ’s best since the Carter years. It’s an autobiographical song cycle largely about the 1970s, which gives Elton a thematic excuse to answer fans’ prayers, drop the adult contemporary slop, and deliver a piano-dominated, live-band effort consciously aping his earliest, most idiosyncratic breakthroughs.

It’s billed as a follow-up to 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and while there’s a whiff of desperation to classic-rock ”sequels,” this really does pick up where John and lyricist Bernie Taupin left off. Barrelhouse rocker ”Just Like Noah’s Ark” isn’t afraid to celebrate Studio 54-era excess, though much of the album is rueful, including ”Blues Never Fade Away,” a sort of Everyman’s ”Candle in the Wind.” If Elton’s music makes a fine case that time can stand still, Taupin’s lyrics, with their late-middle-age perspective, nicely put the lie to that idea. So would it be asking too much to also put in requests for Tumbleweed Reconnection and Goodbye Again, Yellow Brick Road?