Elton John/Leon Russell: The Union

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In an intriguing new recording by Elton John, The Union, the pop star aims to revive an appreciation for Leon Russell, a musician and songwriter whose work influenced Elton, one of rock’s greatest artists. In doing so, Elton may also revive awareness of the merits of the record album. Listening to this 14-song collection, produced by T Bone Burnett and reviewed on compact disc (CD), is a special experience. With help from his longtime writing partner, Bernie Taupin, Leon Russell, and Neil Young, Elton has created a rare and impressive accomplishment. The Union honors one of his vocal and piano heroes and offers some of his best work at once, neatly packaged in an underrated art form that presents his work with Russell in an effective sequence.

Read the liner notes before inserting the disc for Elton’s compelling story of how he broke down and reconnected with Russell’s music while traveling in South Africa with his iPod-listening partner, David Furnish, remembering how Russell had attended one of his 1970 shows at the Troubador in Los Angeles, the city where The Union was recorded. The tunes, which were recorded pretty much as they were originally performed in the studio, are best consumed as an album, in this order, and they take some getting used to. The piano-driven songs about life range from ballads to rockers. Each song is distinctively strong and layered, though the modern ear accustomed to crisp production will strain for clarity at times. The Elton John/Bernie Taupin tracks are outstanding, a mature continuation of their stories in melody. “Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody)” sounds like something from Madman Across the Water. This is Elton coming back to his blues and honky tonk roots, and the only place he’s over the top is in the liner notes, where he thanks too many people and wastes space that could have been used for lyrics.

“The Best Part of the Day” and “When Love is Dying” are a couple of the Elton/Taupin duo’s best songs, with insightful lyrics and soaring music, flawlessly performed. Elton never sounded better. Be sure to enjoy their rocking “Monkey Suit” which grinds and struts its way into a guitar-lickin’ groove. Elton writes that he and Leon Russell, a Nashville, Tennessee-based artist from days gone by who describes himself as bi-polar and seems revitalized here courtesy of Elton John, were awkward in the studio at first. Then, he says, talk turned to Mahalia Jackson and the two of them let loose on a number like a couple of masters in perfect sync.

Their union succeeds in a spirit of reflection and, on their songs, jubilation, appropos of their affinity for gospel music, and it is wonderful to share in one man’s admiration for another man’s achievements, especially in such a well-crafted form.

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