Elton John was a star on the rise in 1973, having gained critical and commercial success in the UK and U.S. in just a few years. After releasing the albums Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across the Water, Honky Château, and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, John and lyricist Bernie Taupin wanted to challenge themselves by composing music spanning several genres.
The result, 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, is a sprawling two-disc set that tells stories with a cinematic flair. One of John’s most beloved works, the best-selling album spawned several hit singles that still receive frequent airplay. To celebrate its 40th anniversary, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road gets the deluxe reissue treatment today packed with demos, live versions, and covers by current artists. John fans will want to upgrade their assumedly worn copies, and casual listeners will gain new appreciation of the artist’s distinctive vocal and musical skills.
John appropriately titled his work Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, as the songs function as short films. Each one tells a story, presenting a tableau of lonely characters, jilted lovers, ladies of the evening, fantastical rock bands, and drunk, rowdy guys looking for a fight. The hit title song hints at the way John and Taupin turn a big Hollywood movie like The Wizard of Oz inside out, focusing on sometimes eccentric personalities and inserting cynicism while removing the perfect movie ending.
Here, the Yellow Brick Road does not necessarily lead to happiness: “When are you gonna come down, when are you going to land? I should have stayed on the farm; I should have listened to my old man,” John laments. He proclaims the road leading to “where the dogs of society howl,” hardly a beautiful image. He defies this Hollywood ending, proclaiming “You can’t plant me in your penthouse; I’m going back to my plough.” John’s wailing falsetto suggests longing and nostalgia, perhaps communicating his ambivalence about his newfound fame and fortune.
Other tracks reflect this theme of the twisted road, zooming in on individual characters while spanning several genres. “Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ’n’ Roll)” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” harken to old-time rock, most likely what John heard while growing up. “Sweet Painted Lady” recalls a song from a Broadway musical, this time focusing on a prostitute with the spotlight’s harsh glare: “Sweet painted lady, seems it’s always been the same — getting paid for being laid; guess that’s the name of the game,” John sings in his clear voice.
The classic “Bennie and the Jets” scored on the R&B charts, an unsurprising fact due to its soul leanings. Even reggae is explored in “Jamaica Jerk Off,” the album’s comparatively weakest track. This remastered edition should garner more notice of an underrated song: “I’ve Seen That Movie Too,” a ballad utilizing cinematic allusions to describe the end of a love affair. John’s passionate performance, along with his exquisite piano work, add up to a simply gorgeous tune.
Taupin’s lyrics cleverly compare love to movies and even the filming process: “So keep your auditions for somebody, who hasn’t got so much to lose — ’cause you can tell by the lines I’m reciting that I’ve seen that movie too,” John sings with a world-weary voice. “I’m not the blue print for all of your B films.” Unlike the typical Hollywood ending, this love story will surely end in heartbreak, with John’s vocals dripping with cynicism. While not as famous as “Candle in the Wind,” “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” exemplifies John’s extraordinary talent for phrasing and creating moods through his voice and piano.
Commemorating the 40th anniversary, this new set includes original demos, singles recorded at the same time as Yellow Brick Road, B-sides, the full Live at Hammersmith ’73 concert (don’t miss his tender rendering of “Your Song”), and a DVD of the 1973 documentary Elton John and Bernie Taupin Say Goodbye Norma Jean and Other Things.
In addition, artists such as Ed Sheeran, Hunter Hayes, the Band Perry, Fall Out Boy, and the Zac Brown Band offer their updated versions of Yellow Brick Road tracks; interestingly, the covers lean heavily toward country. One track of note is Imelda May’s thunderous take on “Your Sister Can’t Twist (but She Can Rock ’n’ Roll),” her robust voice accenting the song’s rockabilly roots.
While the covers are interesting, it’s the original album, live versions, and other John extras that make the deluxe version of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road a truly enlightening experience. Longtime John listeners will enjoy revisiting his masterpiece, while casual or newer fans will gain new insight into his gift for performing music that contains deep emotional resonance. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road may not offer a technicolor ending, but the journey is frequently breathtaking.
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