It’s hard to imagine Elton John, revered national icon, spawning the ‘greatest album of his career’ in 2013 – firstly, given the quality of records like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but also as he’s entering his sixth decade in music. However, some outlets are propositioning just that. His recent efforts, notwithstanding his collaborative ones, may have lacked the sparkle, the pizazz and the pop mastery of his ’70s classics, but does that give credence to the claims of him achieving a zenith with The Diving Board? Perhaps it’s just better than post-millenial LPs, and in comparison seems phenomenal? We’ll see.
John and longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, alongside producer T-Bone Burnett, decided a back to basics approach was needed with this, roughly his 30th studio album. Speaking of the record, which has been pushed back in total four times, he says that it’s “The most piano-oriented album of my career,” and that “It’s my most adult album.” True to those words, this is a very stripped back album, lacking the pomp and glitter of his rock’n'roll heyday – instead, the focus is squarely upon John’s still thoroughly impressive vocals and his virtuosic piano ability. It’s about words and emotions rather than big pop moments; this is a slow-burner, which though possesses grandiose moments of musical glory, revels in the detail.
There’s a lot of dark content matter. ‘Oceans Away’ is John’s ode to fallen soldiers: “The ones that had to stay beneath the little wooden cross oceans away.” It’s one of the segments where the album is at its most sparse – it’s just his vocals and a solitary piano. Though it’s quite heart-rending subject he sings of, there’s not an overtly maudlin facet, and it still retains a hopeful, optimistic sediment. Other tracks feature deeper lyrical content too. ‘Oscar Wilde Gets Out’ is a narrative concerning the esteemed writer’s time in prison and subsequent adventure overseas. There’s racial discussion during ‘The Ballad Of Blind Tom’, and on ‘My Quicksand’, we watch the tragic dismantling of a life of bad choices and failed endeavours. The Diving Board isn’t a record of facetious bubblegum, rather, it’s an anthology of tears.
Musically, even with the scaled back instrumentation, it’s stellar. ‘The New Fever Waltz’ is an Americanised bout of hammy baroque-pop – the chords trace crosshairs over your heart, and when the trembling trickle of strings appear, it’s a moving elegy. ‘A Town Called Jubilee’ is signature Elton John; the piano is vivacious and melodic, sodden with emotional weight, but also the soul-rock bent that established his career. ‘Mexican Vacation (Kids In The Candlelight)’ is a bawdy blues belter, draped in sublime baritone and the gruff shuffle of drums. The keys dance and twirl with deft flicks, and it’s one of the most impressive performances on the record from John. He proves why his skills on the ivories are so renowned the world over.
Elton John, Bernie Taupin and T-Bone Burnett have, even with the skeletal raw materials, created a rich sonic potion. We see the tracks careen through a melange of genres, including R&B, rock’n'roll, gospel, pop and soul, and more often than not, John has something brilliant to say. Whether it’s his best album ever, that’s yet to be discovered. Perhaps in a few years, via the wonder of hindsight, this could well be up there with his early ’70s LPs. However, in the current, fresh context, while it’s good – very good – it’s not going to sit next to those essential albums just yet.