OK, Elton John doesn't make music like he used to; is it too much to ask that he try?

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The disappointment isn’t so much that Elton John doesn’t make music like he used to. It’s that he almost couldn’t be bothered to try.

For instance, rather than being moved to capitalize on the momentum created by The Union, his return-to-form 2010 collaboration with early mentor Leon Russell, John tells Rolling Stone magazine that he didn’t even look at a new set of lyrics sent over by longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin for a proposed solo follow up.

When finally coaxed back to work, John still seemed oddly disconnected from the work: “I said: ‘I’ll go into the studio, and if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t matter.'”

Except to his many fans, of course.

Once he finally buckled down for what will become his 31st studio album, John was surprised to discover that the songs “just came flooding out.” In fact, he wrote six new pieces over just two days in collaboration with producer T Bone Burnett, who also helmed The Union. Burnett suggested going back to an intimate format of piano, bass and drums, recalling John’s seminal 1970 efforts, Tumbleweed Connection and 11-17-70.

Drummer Jay Bellerose and bassist Raphael Saadiq joined John, with guest guitarist Doyle Bramhall appearing on two tracks. The Diving Board is set for release later in the fall.

“As I said with The Union,” John said, “I had to go back to go forward.”

All the way back to a time in which he cared for his craft, all the way back — I’m hoping — to the delicate wonders of a song like “Come Down in Time.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Elton John’s long journey back to his 1970s muse led him to early idol Leon Russell and ‘The Union,’ a sturdy, soulful collaboration full of timeless revelations about starting over.]

Taken from Tumbleweed Connection, this track is the reason why you have to hate Elton John’s last period. John is rarely in half light any more — rarely so patient, so bravely remote, so note perfect. Back then, he put out piano music, with an active and jazzy rhythm section, and there was uncommon beauty. The emotion around “Come Down in Time,” a track about lost love, is only deepened by the expressive bass work of Chris Laurence, the quiet majesty of these Bernie Taupin lyrics, and then a lonely oboe.

It’s true, the tune isn’t representative of the rest of Tumbleweed, an occasionally rough and rascally tribute to the rural South which, in 2003, was ranked No. 463 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. More often than not, you’ll find songs marked by a gospelly, but still honky-tonk feel — notably on “Ballad of Well-Known Gun,” “Son of Your Father,” “My Father’s Gun,” and “Country Comfort.” (Any one of which, fingers crossed, would also be welcome on The Diving Board.)

But it is on “Come Down in Time,” inside the spare arrangement by Paul Buckmaster, that John first successfully mines more melancholy themes that would become so familiar on 1970s radio. To my ear, though, “Daniel” and “Rocket Man” have nothing on “Come Down in Time.” John sings in the earnest, deeper version of his voice that was, back then, a tribute to Van Morrison. (As he has aged, it is all that remains.) It hits you that John almost never works with this kind of dark paint anymore. There is a certain timelessness, too, inside the unfulfilled romance of the song’s characters because it mirrors our own fading allegiance to John, who apparently can scarcely care less about recapturing these magical moments.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: On 2000’s ‘One Night Only: The Greatest Hits,’ Elton John showed he could still occasionally find the center of songs like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” in concert.]

Twice, “Come Down in Time” collapses into melancholy, the way our hearts will. There’s a connecting resonance that this once-great artist has only rarely approached in a generation or more. You listen in wide-eyed wonder — realizing that “Come Down in Time,” alone, could have established the legend of any lesser artist. It certainly validates a career marked too often lately by hit-pandering and — worse, really — Disney soundtracks.

This is still a song you never, ever want to end. Knowing that it does, that it all does, makes the song’s crashing conclusion so much the more powerful:

There are women, some hold you tight
While some leave you counting
The stars in the night.

A perfect metaphor, and a sad rebuke, for what’s happened to the imminently distractible Elton John. If his new album is half as good as “Come Down in Time,” it apparently will be through no fault of his.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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