CD Review of The Captain & the Kid by Elton John

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The Captain & the Kid
starstarstarno starno star Label: Interscope
Released: 2006
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One of the most common complaints voiced by rabid fans of artists who are no longer as good as they used to be (not to mention, frequently, those artists themselves) is that it's unfair to compare the new stuff to the old stuff. There's some merit to this argument, even if it often willfully conflates slow artistic death with "progress"; the fact is, in a perfect world, every work of art would be judged on its own merits. If you think otherwise, try recording something halfway as solid as, oh, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and then listening to fans and/or critics complain for thirty years that everything you've done since kind of sucks by comparison.

This is not to say that the fans and/or critics are incorrect, just that it's got to be a pain in the ass. Which is why it's the height of either irony or desperation that Elton John is presenting his latest as a sequel to his last classic studio album. By inviting the comparison, Sir Elton is subjecting The Captain & the Kid to the kind of scrutiny his releases haven't been able to withstand in recent memory.

In all fairness, a performer with as much under his belt as Elton John is faced with a thankless proposition every time he enters the studio. Having built up a legacy, a lot of recording artists are afraid to tarnish it with new releases; Elton, in a refreshing (and sometimes painful) contrast, has cheerfully continued tossing out new albums on fairly regular basis – The Captain & the Kid is his fifth full-length of original material in the last decade. Few (if any) of his contemporaries can boast that kind of persistence.

Even given points for persistence, however, Elton’s work after 1978 (and that’s being decidedly charitable) is a pale shadow of the promise he displayed early in his career. This is a slightly unfair statement when holding, say, Peachtree Road up against Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but in this case, he’s asking for it.

As a sequel to Captain Fantastic, it goes almost without saying that The Captain & the Kid doesn’t measure up. Though the albums’ autobiographical focus works arguably better in the second act – just think of all the nutty stuff Elton has done in public since 1975 – as a performer, part of what made him special early on was his gift for scuffing up the edges of his classic pop songwriting with enough rock grit to keep them honest. This is a quality that has receded further into the margins of Elton’s studio albums since at least Sleeping with the Past, and The Captain & the Kid does little, if anything, to reverse this trend. Given how emphatically he tries to evoke the flavor of his classic recordings here, that grit is all the more glaring in its absence.

The effect is occasionally discomfiting, honestly. The leadoff track, “Postcards from Richard Nixon,” begins with 40 seconds of solo piano that’s as close to ‘70s Elton as you can get – which makes it that much more disappointing when the song’s melody and vocals turn out to be mailed in from the same Borscht Belt address that brought the world such indelible pop turkeys as “Wrap Her Up” and “The One.” And so it goes for pretty much the remainder of the record. John and band work up a palpable sweat only twice, on “Just Like Noah’s Ark” and “Old ’67”; the rest of the time, you can’t shake the feeling that at any moment, Elton’s going to ask you to try the veal.

On its own merits, of course, The Captain & the Kid is every bit the minor return to form that Songs from the West Coast or Peachtree Road was. The piano is warm and clear, the production appropriately clean, the performances tastefully sharp – essentially everything you could reasonably expect from a pop songwriter playing the back nine of his career. On these terms, the album is a mostly unqualified success, and in fact, it boasts a higher gems-to-coal ratio than any Elton John album in recent memory. It’s really only in the harsh refracted glare of its 31-year-old companion piece that the album’s flaws are brought into focus. Give him credit for the chutzpah it took to return to hallowed ground, but if it’s classic Elton you’re looking for, better to give one of the older records a spin.

~Jeff Giles