One Track Mind: Elton John, “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” from Million Dollar Piano (2014)

And so, you’ve already decried the wayward travels of Elton John’s muse, the way that pomposity for so long overtook the simple, unadorned power of his early records. You said awful things about his get ups. About his film soundtracks. About his work ethic. About the oaken cracks spidering through his vocals.

You’ve written him, for all intents and purposes, off. Despite the Leon Russell album, or even his very credible follow up. You’ve decided that the best Elton John is the old Elton John, and that whatever you once needed from him, whatever emotional connection that was once there, can only be revived through old albums and the stray reissue.

Then The Million Dollar Piano arrives, looking like another example of every bad thing that ever sent you scurrying back to a dog-eared copy of Tumbleweed Connection in the first place. How much more depressing can it get, four decades later, to picture his best songs echoing over the din of card sharps and one-armed bandits at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas?

Then Elton John begins singing “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” a song made for this moment — in the way that it delineates between our wishes and our reality, our perceptions and our reality, our best selves and our actual selves. It has, of course, always been one of his very best collaborations with Bernie Taupin, and — perhaps because Elton originally worked through the lyric in a lower register — it arrives unburdened by what’s changed as his vocal instrument has aged.

What cracks there are feel earned, what things are gone not missed. In this moment, Elton John — performing largely alone, and giving this song every bit of himself — makes good on every promise you thought had not only been broken, but long forgotten. We will, of course, have to save our discussion on the set-closing “Circle of Life” for later. You need to get back to “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.”

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, 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 nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso