Friday saw the release of Elton John’s thirty-third studio album. Wonderful Crazy Night is his first since 2013 and the first to enlist the Elton John Band (guitarist Davey Johnstone, drummer Nigel Olsson, and percussionist Ray Cooper) since 2006’s The Captain & The Kid. Expectations were high given Sir Elton John’s illustrious legacy, and the record does not disappoint. Wonderful Crazy Night is a light, enjoyable album that showcases John’s skill as a composer.
Each song in the album is enriched by bringing together different elements. In terms of tempo, almost all of the songs are generally upbeat, with guitar, piano and percussion keeping light pace in the background of John’s vocals. And yet the singing itself is somewhat slower, which works to give the songs more emotional depth. Throughout the record, we can never forget John’s mastery as a songwriter. With long-time collaborator Bernie Taupin, he has composed each song to constantly bring together sundry instruments and effects, weaving together rich melodies that never feel crowded. Each listen uncovers more sound to be experienced.
The titular track, “Wonderful Crazy Night,” surprisingly, may be where John stumbles. It features a great piano solo, and the instruments overall are excellent, but the lyrics fall a bit flat. Where the purpose seems to be to set the tone for the album, it’s not quite successful in conveying its ostensible sense of carefree love and merriment.
“Claw Hammer” showcases all of Wonderful Crazy Night’s strengths. Opening with a tone of intrigue, the guitar ties together the tambourine and percussion as the song gains momentum. The chorus is particularly absorbing, as John’s vocals are actually slightly deemphasized in favor of the instrumental melody, and more subtle elements like the backup vocals shine through. The sparing use of backup singers is one of the the virtues of the album. Just enough supporting vocals are used to complement John’s lead, discreetly enough that they are almost unnoticeable at times.
Throughout the record, John returns to folk themes and style, as in 1970’s Tumbleweed Connection, but in a more distinctly American way. The introduction to “Looking Up” evokes Norman Greenbaum, and “I’ve Got 2 Wings” dips into the folk style. The song takes on the character of a fictionalized version of the travelling evangelist Utah Smith. Named for Smith’s famous “Two Wings,” the song tells the story of how he “…spoke of peace and love / with two wings and [his] old Gibson,” using music to spread the message of salvation across the country. With its deep bassline and charming use of the tambourine, “I’ve Got 2 Wings” is one of the best tracks on the record.
Wonderful Crazy Night might not be musically groundbreaking, but it is a work of excellent composition with thematic breadth and emotional depth. Beautifully layered with various instruments and effects, listening to this album is a truly rewarding experience.
Voice’s Choices: “Claw Hammer, ”I’ve Got 2 Wings”