A step back in time proved to be a forward-looking move for Elton John.
Upon the suggestion of producer T Bone Burnett, the 66-year-old singer reverted to a musical format he used when starting out more than four decades ago. The new album features John, his piano and vocals backed primarily by bass and drums, with subtle embellishments.
The disc, "The Diving Board," is getting positive reviews and John said he's "ecstatic" about how it came out. His compositions with writing partner Bernie Taupin offer mature reflections, from Taupin's tribute to his father and the World War II generation in "Oceans Away" to the title cut's take on stardom. He performed one of the new songs, "Home Again," on the Emmy Awards telecast.
"I've made over 35, 36 albums and I'd never thought of making an album like that," John said. "I mean, how crazy am I?"
Hearing it reminded critic Robert Hilburn of John's shows at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles in 1970. Those shows, and the review Hilburn wrote about one of them for the Los Angeles Times, essentially introduced John to a U.S. audience and propelled him toward becoming one of music's biggest stars in the 1970s.
"If he had been playing some of these (new) songs that night, I think the enthusiasm in the room would have been the same," Hilburn said.
Burnett was in the audience for at least one of those nights (the Troubadour was a favorite watering hole at the time), and remembered the Little Richard-like sense of abandon John exhibited at the piano. He felt it was time for an album where the piano came first.
He was a facilitator, pushing John in a direction he was probably headed but didn't know it yet — to reconnect with what got him excited about music in the first place. An in-demand producer, Burnett had worked with John on his collaboration with a musical hero, Leon Russell.
"The timing was right," Burnett said. "It just takes a lot to say, 'Oh, I'm going to step up and play an hour's worth of piano.' It takes a lot of energy and fortitude. It's a lot easier to hire some great musicians and let them put it all together and go sing.
"The arrangements, the tone — all of it depended on him," he said.
"The Diving Board" continues one of music's oddest creative partnerships. Once the musical approach became clear, there was no sit-down with Taupin to lay out a master plan. There was no thematic scheme. It was the same as always: John tells Taupin he needs new songs by a certain date, and waits for lyrics to arrive. He then sits down at a piano and puts them to music.
"I don't see any reason to change it because I like it more and more as I get older," John said. "It's always exciting to not know what you're going to get."
John loves the reveal, seeing Taupin's face when he first hears the tunes John has put to the words.
Capitol Records is offering "The Diving Board" in three versions — the standard CD, a "deluxe" version that includes a bonus track and three songs recorded live in the studio and a "super deluxe" package with CD and vinyl versions of the album, a photo book and DVD of the in-studio live performance recorded in April.
The challenge will be reaching an audience.
John is at that career stage reached by artists with a long track record where many fans aren't interested in hearing something new. They want what they remember. Artists can rage at the injustice and try to squeeze into new styles. They can essentially turn off the creative spigot and make money on memories — like John's frequent touring partner Billy Joel. Or they can be creatively liberated by not having to worry about hits.
"I'm not going to get played on the radio," he said. "I'm not a chart artist anymore and that's fine. It gives me the chance to do what I want to do."
The current state of the industry, with a focus on pop hits and short-term careers, makes it much harder for musicians trying to make serious artistic statements, Hilburn said.
"I think it's sad," he said. "I think it's sad for Elton. I think he probably knows in his heart that ('The Diving Board') is not going to get attention."
When he tries to play a new song in a big arena, John said it's "usually met by a mass exodus to the toilet."
In some upcoming European shows, he plans to try some of the new songs to see which ones click with the audience, in the hope that two or three of them can be included in the set when he plays the United States later this fall.
After releasing so many songs over the years, he said he can't really complain about it.
"Of course, it's frustrating," he said. "You want people to like the new stuff as well as the old stuff."