The Diving Board

Elton John

Capitol, 2013

REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck


There seems to be a sort of revisionist battle amongst critics when debating Elton John’s best album. One side holds up Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (celebrating its 40 year anniversary this year) as the perfect encapsulation of what the Rocket Man was always about. The double LP spawned some of pop’s music most legendary songs and found John at the absolute peak of his powers and popularity. The other camp looks even further back to 1971’s Tumbleweed Connection, citing its country influence as John’s most complete piece of work.

Elton himself has quite frequently mentioned a story in which at some point in the early 2000’s, he and lyricist partner Bernie Taupin determined they were done catering to the whims of the pop scene and intentionally began looking to their own past for inspiration. 2001’s Songs From The West Coast marked the first entry in this new endeavor, and from that point on, each subsequent album has seen John attempt to recapture his past glory. His approach has revealed which side of the aforementioned argument John seems to value more. I’ll give you a hint: think less Wizard Of Oz and more John Wayne.

Tumbleweed Connection’s Americana production style was all the rage in the late ‘60s and ‘70s; hell, The Eagles went on to make a career out of it. By that point in his career, John had the nucleus of his band and future success, but that tight unit was still two albums away. Still, the sound of the album was stripped down much further than Elton’s self-titled American debut album. Bernie Taupin’s fascination with the American West provided the proper context for John to take the route he did. The album drips with imagery of the South, the Civil War, dusty old towns where one is born and one dies.

From a conceptual standpoint, The Diving Board doesn’t quite give itself wholeheartedly into the kind of theme that Tumbleweed did; it’s the production style that T Bone Burnett attempts to recreate. Whereas the Burnett produced my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 The Union sought to shine a light on a forgotten talent (Leon Russell), The Diving Board is an album where Elton John’s piano playing is at the forefront of the entire record; something that arguably hasn’t been given the spotlight in 30 years. Between the opportunity for three piano solos and a jazzy interlude during “My Quicksand,” John gets to demonstrate that he is still one of the best pianists in rock. For that alone, The Diving Board achieves a certain measure of success.

When an artist has a single make the Billboard Top 40 for decades in a row, it’s pretty clear that particular person has a talent for the hook. The Diving Board, however, is gloriously devoid of a boss hit-bound single, which is definitely an approach that will alienate a section of Elton’s fan base. For those who have some experience with John’s back catalogue, there a few treasures waiting to be discovered. “Oscar Wilde Gets Out” is a shining example of John’s past reincarnate; when I say this song could be placed on Madman Across The Water, I truly do mean it. Taupin’s delicious stream of consciousness narrative is coupled with a musical cousin to “The Ballad Of Danny Bailey.” “Voyeur” bears the closest resemblance to Elton’s pop hits, but instead of merely focusing on a strong hook, John worked on building a strong song. The track ebbs and flows, but is not as top heavy as something like “Sad Songs Say So Much.”

Taupin’s lyrics are generally criticized for being oblique and hackneyed, but the man would admit he is more concerned with providing the listener with a mental picture than necessarily having a lyric that follows a conventional narrative. It’s those pictures that led me to enjoy The Diving Board from a lyrical standpoint far more than some previous albums (Peachtree Road, The One). The album opener “Ocean’s Away” pays tribute to those who fought and fell in World War II, but in an evocative sense that avoids jingoism and clichés. “The Ballad Of Blind Tom” is a classic Taupin character study, a recounting of the life of Tom Wiggins, an autistic savant from the turn of the century. “Can’t Stay Alone Tonight” and “Take This Dirty Water” actively recall the country flavored tinges of “No Shoe Strings For Louise” or “Country Comfort.”

The word that Elton himself has used to describe The Diving Board is “mature.” The hunger that youth brings just isn’t in him anymore, which makes the fact that John keeps on attempting to travel back in time musically fascinating. The Elton John that started out in the late ‘60s was far different from the Elton John that would appear within five years. That focus on song craft and story on the early records shifted into something completely different. For all the talent that Elton John possesses, for all of the things he has learned over a lifetime in the music business, there is still one irrefutable truth that he cannot avoid: you can never truly go back. This album is admittedly as close as John can get to that period of his career, but the fact that he can’t reach that point doesn’t take away from the quality that is present here. If anything, The Diving Board is the album equivalent of a flashback; it sounds like it should, but doesn’t feel like it should.

Rating: B

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2013 Jeff Clutterbuck and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Capitol, and is used for informational purposes only.