ROCK / Back to life with a blast from the rocket man

THE MAN who plunged London into traffic chaos by threatening to jump into the Euston underpass on Thursday night may have done me a favour. Arriving late at Earls Court, I was impressed by the extent to which Elton John's new hair has settled (he no longer looks like the object of a vicious assault by a flying squirrel), but the crowd was subdued enough to suggest that he had been playing songs from his latest album.

Elton seems to be going through the motions. His performance lacks focus and momentum. Gradually, by sheer effort and showcraft, he wills the night into life. Back from a quick change of jacket in a welter of lasers, he punches the air and starts to stomp and flounce, treating the crowd to his Reg Holdsworth grimace. With 'Rocket Man' it all comes right. You can keep your David Bowie; this is the greatest pop tune ever written about an astronaut. And when Elton breaks the song down for a honky-plonk piano interlude, it's inspiring not indulgent - sort of Mrs Mills meets Thelonius Monk.

A glance around the audience during a similarly transcendent 'Benny and the Jets' shows just how easily his enduring appeal cuts through social boundaries. Two fight-seeking cockney lager monsters stand rapt in wonderment, united in awe at the sight of Stephen Fry dancing. It should be noted that this unexpected celebrity presence greets 'Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting' with particular enthusiasm. Elton's band of Spinal Tap rejects ensure that 'Sad Songs' rocks out unexpectedly, and afterwards one of his lusty- voiced, gospel-tinged backing trio is introduced with a frank bump of rumps. 'I suppose that's what you'd call safe sex,' observes Elton as the ghost of Kenneth Williams looks on smiling, 'Well, she's safe with me.'

Another veteran troubadour came to Britain last week, but this one did not kick over his piano stool. So utterly did Leonard Cohen reject his traditional (and erroneous) categorisation as a purveyor of unrelieved gloom, however, that it would have been no surprise if he had. Cohen is the Mel Brooks of misery. His wit dry to the point of desiccation, he responds to the impassioned requests of an over-zealous Albert Hall crowd by breaking into verses of 'Loch Lomond', afterwards confessing, 'I was in a very dark mood when I wrote that song'.

Self-deprecation is, of course, the subtlest form of vanity. And Cohen's tendency to presage each song with a solemn reading from the lyric we are about to receive takes a bit of getting used to. The lines 'I thank you for those items that you sent me/The monkey and the plywood violin' are rather mystifying outside the context of 'First We Take Manhattan'. But there's no mistaking that voice - Barry White and Johnny Cash share a joke in a throat-specialist's waiting room - even if it has sunk so low that dogs can't hear it.

As Cohen is phlegmy, so his backing vocalists, Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen, are celestial. The musicians, on the other hand, are so tastefully understated you sometimes wonder if it's worth their while being there at all. The most effective part of the show is the beginning of the second half, when Cohen does 'Avalanche' and 'Suzanne' alone with his guitar, then follows up, band back in place, with the delightfully barbed 'Tower of Song', which he enlivens still further with an impossibly funky one-handed synthesiser solo. He does go on a bit in the end, though, and by the fourteenth encore his evident good humour and self-satisfaction have become slightly, well, depressing.

There is nothing remotely depressing about the Goats. They are a brilliant new rap group from Philadelphia who played here for the first time last week - effortlessly reducing the cast- iron cool of the Jazz Cafe to molten lava. Even if the idea of a politicised, multi-racial version of the Beastie Boys doesn't automatically fill you with glee, the sheer aplomb with which the Goats chew up their own high-quality material is irresistible. The mix of rapping, samples and live instruments - drums, bass, guitar, piano - has been done before but never this well. The band are not yet as slick between songs as they are in full flight (at one point head Goat Swayzack claims controversially to be 'in favour of oppression') but they're none the less likeable for that. Whichever summer festival they decide to come back to Britain for will be worth the price of admission for the Goats alone.

Meanwhile, back at the raunch . . . 'We had the kind of night where morning comes too soon. We used the light from a flickering candle across the room to make the kind of shadows that only one thing can make - love]' So begins not the latest novel by Julie Burchill, but Janet., the new, modestly titled album by Janet Jackson. What follows - right down to the Like a Prayer-style bared navel and undone fly-button on the back cover - is an extraordinarily bare-faced attempt to beat Madonna at her own game and become pop's queen of sauce.

Whether or not she succeeds in this endeavour, and her US No 1 'That's the Way Love Goes' suggests she might, Jackson will never have the material girl's integrity. Her Mae West- esque spoken interludes - when she whispers 'be a good boy and put this on', it's not a cardigan she's talking about - are just too drastic a turnaround to be believable after her last album, the po-faced and ponderous (and 8m-selling) Rhythm Nation 1814. Fortunately, given that Janet. lasts for 75 minutes, the music has more in common with her sublime breakthrough album, Control. The sound is spiced up by Chuck D and an opera singer. But the most emotionally involving feature of this product is its dedication - 'In memory of Tivoli, gone like her paw prints on our sandy beach after a winter storm . . .'

'Janet.' is released tomorrow (Virgin, LP/tape/CD).

(Photograph omitted)

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