Elton John's Wonderful Crazy Night has an infectiously spontaneous flavour - review

His sheer fervour for his craft puts many pretenders a third his age to shame.

In 1980, Elton John denoted his age and work rate with 21 at 33, the 21st album of an already prolific career. By the strictest arithmetic, his new release shows a slowing of productivity, since Wonderful Crazy Night could have been titled 33 at 68. But the apparently inexhaustible singer-songwriter – and beneath all the superstar hoopla, that is what he is still proud to call himself – maintains such an unremitting schedule in studio and on stage as to make nonsense of that interpretation. His sheer fervour for his craft puts many pretenders a third his age to shame.

Thus he arrives at the follow-up to 2013’s The Diving Board, an altogether darker affair than this set, which is largely as high-spirited as its title suggests. By his own assessment in a recent encounter, John finds himself at a highly positive stage of his life and work, and Wonderful Crazy Night sees him going backwards to go forwards.

Perhaps ironically for someone with something of a track record for more hirings and firings than most Premiership chairmen, he is also intensely loyal to his fellow musicians. The album represents a reunion with the core Elton John band that has decorated almost his entire recording career, including original drummer Nigel Olsson, longtime guitarist Davey Johnstone and, on five tracks, irrepressible percussionist Ray Cooper. That’s before you consider the extension to 48 years of surely the most remarkable and enduring songwriting partnership of our times, with lyricist Bernie Taupin. 

Such a familiar setting, overseen in Los Angeles by a more recent, but frequent, confederate, producer T-Bone Burnett, encourages an infectiously spontaneous flavour to what may be one of the most “live” studio albums in John’s catalogue. The breezy title track may be a relatively lightweight John-Taupin confection, but like many here, it boasts an adhesive piano figure that most writers would pine for.

Such vivid keyboard detail is a recurring feature, as on the brooding introduction to the driving “In the Name of You” and the vaguely psychedelic “Claw Hammer”. The latter also showcases nicely textured electric and acoustic guitars before the inspired introduction of jazz horns, as Taupin’s evocative lyric describes someone “holed up in your house of wax, just waiting for the fire”.

To have such a consummate piano player showcasing the instrument, as he did on his marvellous introductory run of records, adds considerable heft to the album. At times, as on “I’ve Got 2 Wings”, the sense of Americana in sound and imagery recalls the atmosphere of, say, Madman Across the Water, whereas the bare “Blue Wonderful” evokes the Eighties era of Too Low for Zero.

By the time of “Looking Up”, which introduced the album as a pre-Christmas single, we’re back into killer piano motifs and unswerving optimism. Wonderful Crazy Night is not an album of hit singles, but John knows his game is to sit on the sub’s bench these days. But still to be delivering such carefully and enthusiastically forged handiwork says much about his respect for his legacy and his audience.         

Elton John’s ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’ is released on Friday

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