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ELTON JOHN

Caribou
Rating: 5
   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.

READER COMMENTS

  • From Sam Johnson: Interesting perspective on Elton John. As a fan I enjoy him a little more than you do, of course, although I agree that Bernie Taupin is no Walt Whitman (or even e. e. cummings)--though every once in a while, he'll actually churn out something good--see "Candle in the Wind" (non-Princess Di version), "Bennie and the Jets," and "Love Lies Bleeding." Of course, pretty much everything else on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is full of misogyny and just plain stupidity.
    I would recommend reviewing one of Elton's earlier albums next--maybe Tumbleweed Connection or even his criminally underrated debut, Empty Sky.
  • From Brendan S. McCalmont: I really like the music of Elton John. Despite what you read everyday, I feel he made his best music in the early 80's. He could get really pretentious in the 70's. Well, it was actually Bernie Taupin who got pretentious. For example, the album Madman Across the Water is full of Bernie trying to write pseudo-religious lyrics fused in with stories about people who have 'roots'. Songs like 'Razor Face' are obscure versions of what are basically 'Eleanor Rigby' wannabes. Basically, the lyrics of that album make me want to yak. However, I may be wrong. Maybe I am overlooking something. In the 80's, he made enjoyable straightforward pop music. Of his big hit years, the one album that does stand out for me is Caribou, because it relies a lot on entertainment. Songs like 'The Bitch is Back' and 'Stinker' have a real air of excitement about them. A lot of the other songs were at least good natured pretentiousness [a good thing]. For me, good-natured pretentiousness is someone playing around and making unusual sounds for the fun of it and stuff like that. So for me, 'Solar Prestige a Gammon' is a really great song. For me his standout albums are Empty Sky - it's really infectious, Elton John - its many ballads are beautiful and the rockers are heaps of fun [get with the bonus track 'Bad Side of the Moon']. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Caribou. Thom Bell Sessions, A Single Man, Fox, Jump Up - his best album, in my opinion - Too Low for Zero, Breaking Hearts, Leather Jackets, The One and The Big Picture. I suppose The One and The Big Picture can get boring with their long but slow paces but still they have very great melodies. Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player and Tumbleweed Connection are also worthy of mention. I know one thing, he's sure put out a lot of albums!
  • From Steve Sumiyoshi Coleman: I've always enjoyed Elton John's music, but I have to agree that there are times when I'll be humming along and suddenly stop and ask myself, "Does that line make sense to anyone else?"
    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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