Were it released in the LP era, Elton John's "The Diving Board" would have arrived as a fancy double gatefold album, 15 songs separated by instrumental miniatures to open each side. Such a presentation would have added an extra layer of import, signaling the arrival of an album to be taken seriously amid toss-away hitmakers. An assured record that addresses history and drama with poise and confidence, the veteran pianist and his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin tackle melody and story as they've done before — while visiting a vividly imagined musical realm.
Those longing for the easy comfort of the classic Elton sound, one that dances around the treacle without falling into it, will find much to appreciate on "The Diving Board." Produced by T Bone Burnett, the record mixes minor and major chords, waltzes, ballads and gentle rockers while John keenly relays tales of lost poets (the exquisite "My Quicksand), Southern piano players ("The Ballad of Blind Tom") and famed playwrights ("Oscar Wilde Gets Out").
John and Taupin have created so many hits that it's easy to take the partnership for granted, but one listen to the gorgeous, picture-perfect ballad "Can't Stay Alone Tonight" should serve as a reminder. A melancholy ode to a broken relationship, the song's an instant classic: "You're the last chance on the highway/I'm that open stretch of road/You're the diner in my rear-view/A cup of coffee getting cold." "Mexican Vacation (Kids in the Candlelight)" features John channeling New Orleans barrelhouse piano.
The album's not perfect. "A Town Called Jubilee" features a lazy melody amid an odd ode to the simple life, one filled with horseshoes, poker-playing auctioneers and a restaurant named Moe's where the protagonist eats T-bone steak. The song plods along, one of a number that could have been trimmed to make an excellent record start to finish. But the successes are many, and highlight an artist who seems devoted to caring for his muse and its many unexplored corners.
The Diving Board
Three stars (out of four)