Album review: Elton John, The Diving Board (Mercury)

Album of the Week: Elton makes a splash with a great return to form

Recorded with a pared-down unit of mostly just piano, bass and drums under the watchful ear of producer T-Bone Burnett, The Diving Board is Elton John's most vital release since the mid-1970s heyday of landmarks such as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, one significant difference being that this album is clearly not as garlanded with hit singles. Instead, the singer has matched Bernie Taupin's best crop of lyrics for years with his own most emotively apt melodies to produce a collection that both harks back to the intrigues and interests of his earliest recordings, yet manages to break new ground, quite an achievement for an artist in his sixth decade.

As might be expected, there's a reflective tone to some of the songs. “Oceans Away” opens the album with a tribute to old soldiers, both the dead and “the ones who hold onto the ones they have to leave behind”; a similar vein of empathy drives “Voyeur”, about snatching solace in liaisons, however temporary, as respite from the adversity of conflict. The longing for home and loved ones extends into the single “Home Again”, where wanderlust is precariously balanced with homesickness in the awareness that “if I'd never left, I never would have known”. Elton's own roots are lovingly revisited in the punchy, rolling piano grooves and serpentine runs of “Ballad Of Blind Tom” and the frisky, rumbustious “Mexican Vacation”, both of which nod to his friendship with Leon Russell, and in the gospelly “Take This Dirty Water”, a fond throwback to Tumbleweed Connection territory.

But the best moments are reserved for “The Diving Board” itself, a wry, Nina Simone-esque rumination on the precipitous nature of celebrity; for “Oscar Wilde Gets Out”, an account of the writer's flight to France upon his release from Reading Gaol, and most of all for “My Quicksand”, a devastating portrait of a bohemian poet acknowledging his life's failure, its poignant tone captured in a soulful jazz vocal that's movingly unlike anything that Elton has recorded before. It's the crowning glory of an album that may be the best of his career.