It’s fascinating to hear what a person sees when he or she looks at a cloud. Most people see shapes of animals; I see maps. For example, this weekend I saw a cloud that looked just like the outline of Cuba, and there are an awful lot of clouds that look like Iceland; nearly every cumulus cloud bears a resemblance to the northern coast of Russia.
Elton John is a lot like a cloud not only is he pale and puffy, people see whatever they want in him. Is he a sensitive balladeer? The outstanding melodist of the seventies? A rocking bluesy pianist? A gay icon? A representative of the worst that bourgeois schmaltz has to offer? Yes, he is.
The reason he’s so hard to pin down is that there’s nothing in John’s career that could be accused of resembling an artistic vision. He’s got the tunes, he plays ‘em well and sings with passion, but it would be a stretch to say he’s “expressing” anything other than his love of performing. Part of this, of course, is that he’s not singing his own lyrics, but plenty of terrific singers have put their own feelings into others’ lyrics (think of Carole King or Brian Wilson). The other part is that Bernie Taupin may just be the worst lyricist in the history of rock music. It would be an insult to cows everywhere to call his words tripe. They don’t even ascend to nonsense. They’re just random rhythmic thoughts that cross his mind. Sometimes they’re connected vaguely to a theme, sometimes they’re not. They generally leave the impression that Elton John is a very talented blithering idiot.
That very meaninglessness may be the source of John’s longevity. Expressing an actual point of view even one held by a large number of your fans can land you in a heap of trouble. Ask the Dixie Chicks. But if you keep spouting humworthy sentence fragments (“And there's no one there to raise them if you did”) and non-evocative imagery (“red tail lights heading for Spain”), well, your fans can put any stamp they want on you and there’s no evidence in the lyric sheet to contradict them.
Caribou, then, is Bernie Taupin’s apotheosis. You get a tribute to the charms of Grimsby (for Americans, sort of like an ode to Wilmington, Delaware), you get the usual confusion about American geography (“Down from Louisiana on the Vicksburg run”) and culture (could there ever be a bar in Queens called the “Kicking Mule”?), but most of all you get the bizarre juxtaposition of clichés that defy interpretation (“closed the door and left me blinded by the light”, “as perfect as the Fourth of July / quilted and timeless, seldom denied”, “Times are changing, now the poor get fat / but the fever's gonna catch you when the bitch gets back.") Of course, when Bernie tries to be serious, he mostly manages to reveal a streak of racism (in one song he manages to slip in both “gook” and “negro”) and sexism (“If you're gonna spend the summer in New York City / them women, they're gonna slice your pie”) and just plain numbskullery (the whole of “Ticking,” which bears as its thesis that raising children to be hard-working and respectful turns them into serial killers).
But the fine art of obfuscatory lyrics reaches its pinnacle here, too. I refer, of course, to “Solar Prestige a Gammon,” a piece that so gloriously defines “Taupinesque” that I’m compelled to quote it in full:
Oh ma cameo molesting
Kee pa a poorer for tea
Solar prestige a gammon
Lantern or turbert paw kwee
Solar prestige a gammon
Kool kar kyrie kay salmon
Hair ring molassis abounding
Common lap kitch sardin a poor floundin
Cod ee say oo pay a loto
My zeta prestige toupay a floored
Ray indee pako a gammon
Solar prestige a pako can nord
Combined with Elton’s usual melodic flair and an intriguing vibraphone arrangement, it’s tuneful, easy to sing and nigh irrestistable. And yet there’s not one whit of personal feeling in it. A triumph!
Unfortunately, Bernie came in to his peak at a moment when Elton’s powers were waning. While a couple of the tunes have powerful hooky melodies (“Dixie Lily” with its modest semi-arches in the chorus, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” with its drooping title line) but a lot of the others are pretty uneventful: “Stinker” is a boring blues (Elton John doing the blues?), “I’ve Seen the Saucer” seems to think that repeating a block chord consistutes a hook, and “Ticking” grinds on and on with the same piano arpeggio. The production is exquisite as usual, however, and the addition of a funky horn section adds pizzazz.
Caribou is an album that drifts away in the wind but it’s fun to let your mind make pictures while it’s playing.
I would recommend reviewing one of Elton's earlier albums next--maybe Tumbleweed Connection or even his criminally underrated debut, Empty Sky.
I thought you might be interested in some information I found about the nonsensical song "Solar Prestige A Gammon." You used these particular lyrics when critiquing Taupin's lyrics, yet according to the following site, this song was written specifically to address those who would try to over analyze his song writing!
The site address is www.eltonjohn.ch/AlbumFocusCaribou.htm. It's written in French, but if you don't read French, here's my translation:
Elton would perform this piece only once in 1977 during a series of concerts in London. It's a song that means nothing and that was written to frustrate people who did not cease in analyzing Bernie's lyrics, finding in them meanings that were biblical, esoteric, and whatnot.
Keep up the good work!
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