Album: Elton John

Songs from the West Coast, Rocket
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The Independent Culture

Elton is Ryan Adams' most high-profile celebrity fan, thanking him in the credits to this, his 40th album, for having "inspired me to do better". And so he has: Songs From The West Coast is his best release in, well, decades; its relatively stripped-down sound is a deliberate reversion to the early Elton style of Tumbleweed Connection, and the strength of its songwriting marks a long overdue return to the classic John/Taupin virtues of narrative drive and melodic persuasion. The album is bookended by a couple of reflections on former glories: "The Emperor's New Clothes" is a mea culpa for the arrogant assumptions of youth, with Paul Buckmaster's horn arrangement adding just the faintest hint of Hovis to the recollections, while the big anthemic set-closer "This Train Don't Stop There Anymore" employs an evocative railway metaphor in its eulogy to fading powers: "I used to be the main express/All steam and whistles heading west." The same sense of regret for unfulfilled promise underpins the Aids lament "Ballad Of The Boy In The Red Shoes", and elsewhere songs such as the frisky "Birds", "Original Sin" and "Dark Diamond" (with bubbling clavinet courtesy of Stevie Wonder) manage to deal with difficult issues in a mature and melodic manner. Perhaps the most daring song here, however, is Elton's response to the murder by redneck yahoos of a gay man, "American Triangle", whose criticism of unthinking traditionalism – "Western skies don't make it right" – is hardly likely to get much US airplay at the moment.