If you havent listened to Elton Johns 1973 double LP Goodbye Yellow Brick Road straight through recently -- and Im willing to bet its been years if not decades for most of you -- be forewarned: The albums meticulously remastered (albeit slightly tardy) 40th anniversary reissue may be a shock to your system.
Not exactly Johns breakout album -- hed had five top 10 singles in the U.S. by that point, including a No. 1 with Crocodile Rock -- it marked more of an introduction to Johns platform-booted, fantastically bespectacled outre stage persona. But musically it went far beyond the glam, perfectly blending Johns piano-driven pop brilliance with Bernie Taupins resonant, multi-layered lyrics, which sound just as quirky and audacious today.
The first four tracks are among the LPs best known, and they hold up beautifully. The one-two punch of Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding starts things off with moody prog-rock swagger before diving into the rollicking guitar and piano pop that would define the albums vibe. Candle in the Wind transcends the rewritten Princess Diana cheesiness it would take on decades later, and Bennie and The Jets remains a one-of-a-kind, impeccably delivered R&B nugget.
The title track, meanwhile, with its soaring strings and Johns crackling falsetto, is Taupins best back to the farm song, rife with elegant imagery (where the dogs of society howl) and poignant resolve magnified exponentially by Johns delivery. It stands up as perhaps Eltons greatest ballad, capturing the decades urban ennui while remaining touchingly timeless.
But the real joy in revisiting the album is in what follows that impressive opening four-pack. In turns melancholic and exuberant, sad and salty, the pop perfection that carries over into the remaining 13 tracks is, four decades later, still staggering.
Theres This Song Has No Title, showcasing Johns neo-classical piano chops and effortless hooks; Ive Seen That Movie Too, with its smoky anguish; the beautifully realized nostalgia of Roy Rogers and the sweet, well, harmonies of Harmony. Despite Johns occasional recent returns to form, last years The Diving Board among them, hes never quite duplicated the explosion of pop artistry he captured on this double LP.
Of course, this being an anniversary package -- a Super Deluxe one at that -- theres more to it than just the original album. The real find in the extras is a collection of nine covers by young performers that manage to celebrate the originals while remaining musically relevant in their own right, unlike 1991s largely DOA Two Rooms tribute disc.
Ed Sheeran kicks things off nicely with an acoustic Candle in the Wind, and Miguels Bennie and The Jets, with its hip-hop vibe and rap interlude, feels startlingly contemporary. (And unlike Eltons version, you can understand the lyrics.) The Band Perry brings plucky country charm to Grey Seal, and John Grants laconic take on Sweet Painted Lady captures the songs sleazy nonchalance.
The only dud is Fall Out Boys surprisingly inert Saturday Nights Alright For Fighting -- much more successful is Imelda Mays Your Sister Cant Twist (But She Can Rock n Roll), which reinvigorates the song by replacing Johns Freddie Cannon organ jams with rockabilly licks.
The outtakes and B sides that follow the covers are more of a mixed bag. Two versions of Grey Seal, a demo and the original 1970 take, are fine if unenlightening, and its clear why some of the other tracks, like the countrified Jack Rabbit and rollicking but obvious Screw You (Young Mans Blues), got left off the album. And the off-kilter Christmas track Ho! Ho! Ho! is downright Fellini-esque, but not in a good way.
A little more background might have made the outtakes more interesting, but amazingly the 100-page accompanying booklet (book, really) doesnt make room for a track-by-track explainer. Still, an in-depth essay and a treasure trove of photos and memorabilia from the era make it a fine souvenir, with a complete recording of a 1973 Hammersmith Odeon concert and accompanying 45-minute documentary from the same year further cementing the albums well-deserved legend.
But if the bells and whistles arent your thing, you may want to consider the 40th anniversary vinyl edition. Just drop the needle and enjoy a piece of pop history.
Peter Chianca is the editor in chief of Gatehouse Media New Englands north-of-Boston newspapers and websites and founder of Blogness on the Edge of Town. Follow him on Twitter at @pchianca or email him at pchianca@wickedlocal.com.