Show business, known to outsiders as cruel and to insiders as especially cruel, gives her greatest gifts to those who can conquer her most toilsome challenges. She is a mountain – one nearly impossible to climb, but even harder to stay at her peak once achieved. Consistent relevance in the public eye has proven elusive to even the most talented of entertainers, and those who achieve it represent such a small portion of the performer pool that it eventually becomes systematically proficient at draining the said pool.
Few acts have exhibited the remarkable staying power of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, who gaze down on a different type of pool on their newest record The Diving Board. Coming 43 years after their first hit “Your Song” in 1970, they’ve since made over 30 records together that have sold over 300 million copies – including 7 consecutive number-one albums, 9 number-one hits, 6 Grammy Awards, and a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction for Elton. They are one of the five most successful music acts of all-time.
But early in his career, Elton John, as so many singer/songwriters are, was plagued with an identity crisis. While fellow introvert Bernie could write the lyrics and hide behind the scenes, Elton was on the public stage, where the last person he wanted his audience to see was himself. He was shy and unimposing, and as we later learned, also repressing his sexuality. So, shoved into the spotlight, he hid in his own way – in outrageous outfits, lavish jewelry and his trademark immoderate glasses.
Elton’s eccentric costumes were in direct contrast to Bernie’s often dark and fearful lyrics. His music played along to Bernie’s anxiety and naivety on their first few records, but eventually became more chart-focused than introspective, and Elton’s stage alter-ego could survive. His identity issues would later take their toll, when his drug use became so excessive he had several encounters with the brink of death. Elton always wanted it both ways as a performer – he asked us to take his often somber songs seriously while he paraded on stage with irreverent profligacy. He asked us to accept him as a global superstar when he clearly couldn’t accept himself as one. He asked us to grant him an exception to the artist’s paradox, for he was unwilling to choose between indulgence and authenticity.
Because of the music, and only the music, we agreed to meet Elton’s demands. The songs had a rare ability to make us feel like we were flying with the new and rousing, while simultaneously being grounded with the familiar and what we could relate to. And now, listening to The Diving Board, it sounds like Elton and Bernie truly understand the meaning of their journey. It is the most organic and bittersweet Elton John record since Tumbleweed Connection – “A Town Called Jubilee” could fit on either album – and Elton himself has never been more featured on his own work. Several of the tracks are just Elton and solo piano; in fact the record even has three shorter instrumental piano tracks. T-Bone Burnett’s masterful production fingerprints are everywhere. The spotlight, once on outlandish fashion shows or month-long drug binges, now shines back where it started: Elton and his piano.
But the record, while certainly reflective, seems in many ways to be looking ahead. There is a palpable sense of discomfort that at times borders on defeat; neither Elton nor Bernie appear to be satisfied with where they stand, despite acknowledging they’re further along now than they once were. The Western melodies on “Oscar Wilde Gets Out” and “The Ballad of Blind Tom” sound as though the duo is readying for battle or preparing to face an ostensibly expected sentence.
Elton is not the songwriter he once was, but he sounds as accepting of that as ever. Some of the melodies are indeed too ambitious, but they are never spurious. Bernie, as usual, is on top of his game and his maturity shines: “All you need is a candlelit bedroom, all you ever wanted was a state of grace; every waking moment you believed that love will always lead you to a better place.”
The Diving Board feels like what will be one of the legendary duo’s last records; they seem to have truly come full-circle. They finally sound like they get it – despite overwhelming success, there is always another mountain to climb, another bridge to cross, another dive to attempt. Though the view is different, the vulnerability and genuineness of their early records has resurfaced. “We all dream of leaving, but wind up, in the end, spending all our time trying to get back home again.”
Appropriately, Elton and Bernie are again asking to have it both ways. They savor the comfort and safety of home, yet ache to again stand on the diving board – which, after all, is furthest from the ground, but closest to the sun.