They just don’t make them like they used to, and music is no exception. “Madman Across the Water,” by Elton John, is a stunning example of the lost art form of the musical album.
The first song, “Tiny Dancer,” may be the most universally known of John’s work, and rightfully so. The classic Elton John sound begins with a gentle, melodic introduction on the piano as he describes in loving terms his beloved “Tiny Dancer.” The folk guitar sound and gentle background vocals make the song just as unforgettable as the tiny dancer described in the lyrics.
The next track on the record is “Levon.” Again, the track begins with the typical gorgeous piano introduction. The vocals in this song are particularly lovely, and the backing guitar is a delicate but stunning touch. Jumpy strings add certain intensity to the sound, and deep string bass lines add significant depth to the track. More than anything, “Levon” has soul. It still holds that “Wall of Sound” quality that has been lost in the Top 40 era. The drums, with lots of cymbal, along with rapid jazz piano, add a certain modern touch to the classic style.
“Razor Face” by far has the most electric sound on the album. It has a deeper sound, with more harmony in the piano and in the vocals. By straying from the acoustic sound, the track takes on a rock flare much like that of The Rolling Stones. However, this track truly spotlights the articulate drum talent of John’s style. The drums in every song are full of emotion, and they pause and swell rhythms at the perfect moments to create levels of depth within the melodies.
“Razor Face” also proves John just can’t seem to keep it mainstream. The song ends with an incredible accordion rock solo that adds that quirky Elton John flare back into the mix.
Title track “Madman Across the Water” is a personal rock ballad all about personal transformation. This track also spotlights those subtle levels within John’s work. The prominent bass, discordant strings and psychedelic shift manage to speed up the feeling of a song without enhancing any other aspect. John shows off his compositional skill with those touches.
Guitar solos shine in “Holiday Inn.” I am not sure how those rapid riffs are achieved with such high frequency, but they are sharp and direct and show off John’s artful thought processes and composition. The guitars blend perfectly with the piano, inviting chorus, all elements contribute to making a powerful and impressive song. Of all the songs on this record, “Holiday Inn” is the one I would love to see performed live.
My favorite aspect of John’s music is his vocal style. That style is culminated in “Rotten Peaches.” The way he jumps with exceptional accuracy to each soulful high note is so distinctive and I like to think of it as his signature on every song. His exclamations of “Jesus!” throughout this track are a blast to listen to; he always hits them right on.
John’s ability to add flavor to long notes is a close second to the top of the scale hits in my book. John manages to show off that riffing voice in “All the Nasties.” This song showcases how he is willing to go back to his roots and utilize his classical training. The resonant sound is perfectly paired with those specialty flavors that John adds to each note.
“Madman Across the Water” ends with the perfectly titled “Goodbye,” which takes you back to that very gentle piano introduction. But this time, it is much more haunting, fitting for a farewell track. John’s vocals are equally as eerie. All of the elements in “Goodbye” point to an emotional ballad, echoing desperation with each beat.
The songs in this album show serious talent, and highlight John’s ability to insert depth into his music. They don’t make them like they used to, and they especially don’t make them quite like the masterful work of Elton John.