New albums from heritage rock stars are often a risky gamble: for every masterpiece like David Bowie’s Blackstar, there are underwhelming records from Neil Young (2014’s preachy Storytone), Lou Reed (2011’s ridiculed Lulu), and Pink Floyd (2014’s dreary The Endless River). Elton John has bucked the trend and enjoyed a late-career revival: his 1994 soundtrack for The Lion King earned numerous accolades, spawned the most successful musical ever, and made him relevant to a new generation of fans. But while he’s had a consistent, prolific output since — 2010’s T-Bone Burnett collaboration The Union and 2013’s back-to-basics The Diving Board stand out— John’s 32nd studio album, Wonderful Crazy Night, is a mixed bag.
During many moments here, the 68-year-old retains the charisma and performing chops that have defined his career. On “Looking Up,” he serviceably updates the riffage of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” only this time with a slick Hall & Oates-style sheen. And the Elton John Band (returning for the first time since 2006’s The Captain & the Kid) adds swagger to “In The Name Of You”—it almost sounds like a lost outtake from 1972’s Honky Chateau. Sure, by-the-books rockers like the title track are forgettable, but John’s zeal keeps the energy pulsing throughout. And the gifted pianist can still save mediocre songs with a little bit of his keyboard magic, which he does on the otherwise bland “Guilty Pleasure.”
But Goodbye Yellow Brick Road this ain’t. “Claw Hammer” begins with an intriguing hook, but tanks when John busts into a maudlin chorus better suited for a Vegas show. The schmaltzy ballad “Blue Wonderful” finds John cycling through key changes, only to never find one that works. And on the album closer “The Open Chord,” John delivers longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin’s cringeworthy line, “You’re an open chord I wanna play all day,” as orchestral strings pluck away in the background.
Rollicking arrangements conceal lackluster songwriting on Wonderful Crazy Night‘s more upbeat cuts, but when the tempos slow, John’s music suffers. Still, his voice is intact (which is more than some of his peers can say) and his showmanship still shines. Nearly five decades after he revolutionized what it means to be a rock star, John’s boundary-pushing days may be long gone, but the sun hasn’t gone down on him just yet.