Elton John albums tend to get overlooked for many reasons. During his heyday, he made a ton of them in a very short stretch of time, so for some, they might blend together. He was so adept at churning out massive singles that the albums themselves were somewhat tethered to that success: “Oh, that’s the one with ‘Rocket Man,’” or some such thing.
Why is it then that John has given the deluxe reissue treatment to one of those early 70s albums that spawned no hit singles at the time (even if two tracks have long since entered the rock and roll firmament)? The guess is that he realizes that 1971’s Madman Across The Water deserves attention as an artistic statement better appreciated as a whole rather than a collection of parts.
No John success of that era would have been possible without his co-writer Bernie Taupin, whose knack for trenchant character sketches and telling details drew you in, even when the stories were often hard to track from Point A to Point B. John was also blessed to work with brilliant musicians and production talent who raised his music to another level. All of that comes together on Madman, which is why the four full-length albums found in the deluxe reissue somehow leave us wanting even more.
Speaking of extras, the only leftover song from that era that appears in this package is “Rock Me When He’s Gone,” which John originally handed over to Long John Baldry. There are two albums worth of demos and alternate versions. The highlight of the outtakes is an extended rendering of the title track featuring Mick Ronson laying down some stinging lead guitar. As for the demos, John’s voice-and-piano run-throughs demonstrate the melodic brilliance of the compositions.
Even better is a disc devoted to a BBC “Sounds For Saturday” performance to promote the album. John tackles the material with bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, the same personnel that accompanied him on his breakthrough tour of America the previous year. You can hear why this lineup was so effective, as they evoke equal parts intimacy and potency throughout the performances.
That leaves us with the album, sounding fresher than ever some 50 years or so since its release. John is naturally the centerpiece, but clutch contributions, like Davey Johnstone’s mandolin on “Holiday Inn,” Jack Emblow’s accordion on “Razor Face,” and even the Cantores In Ecclesia choir providing the vocal coda on “All The Nasties,” make indelible impressions.
Top that off with the production of Gus Dudgeon and the string arrangements of Paul Buckmaster. Buckmaster, in particular, was invaluable to this album, pushing tracks like “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon” to majestic heights without ever over-egging the pudding.
Taupin comments in the booklet that accompanies the reissue how his and John’s experiences in America influenced the writing. But throughout Madman, the pair create telling portraits of outcasts and rebels that would have worked in any setting. They lavish affection and empathy on the down-on-their-luck characters in “Razor Face” and “Rotten Peaches.” John makes you sympathize with the smothering father as much as you do with the restless son in “Levon.” Even the somewhat clunky “Indian Sunset” is rescued by the earnestness of his vocal performance.
Even when the songs hew to the autobiographical, the outsider element is still evident. “Tiny Dancer” is an ode to California girls written from the point of view of a wounded soul in need of saving. “All The Nasties” gives the vulnerable narrator some redemption with the closing “Oh my soul” refrain. But that’s quickly robbed by the final track “Goodbye” and John’s haunting closing cries of “I’ll waste away.”
And we haven’t even mentioned the title track, where John captures all the wild-eyed danger and heartbreaking pathos of a troubled mind, his piano sounding as if it’s dodging the arrows of Buckmaster’s strings in a tense chase scene. John would soon go the full-band route for a series of more rocking records. But this reissue makes the case for Madman Across The Water as one of the greatest singer-songwriter albums of that era, even if two songwriters were required to get the job done.
Photo: Pop singer Elton John poses for a portrait with his lyricist Bernie Taupin in 1969 in London, England. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)