Thursday, April 14, 2011

April 14: Elton John, "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road"

Artist: Elton John
Song: "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road"
Album: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Year: 1973

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Throughout the entire course of music history, one of the more frustrating situations to watch is when an artist or band ends up being grouped into a category that they do not belong, and the stereotypes that come with the genre in question prevent many from realizing the full range of the artist.  While many of these artists certainly achieve massive commercial success, there can still be large groups of music fans that never give their music a chance, simply due to the improper classifications that are passed down.  Though there are a number of clear occurrences of this, one can easily argue that nothing turns off "mainstream" rock fans quicker than the term "soft rock," and there has perhaps been no more inaccurate a use of this definition than when it is used to describe the diverse sounds found within the catalog of Elton John.  Pushing far beyond the perceived "constraints" of "a man and his piano," John has everything from winding ballads to outright rockers in his catalog, and one would be hard pressed to argue any other individual as a more successful pop star of the 1970's.  Due to his wide range in sound, picking a single song, or even a single album, as his finest is truly impossible, and it largely comes down to personal taste to make such an argument.  However, one can find almost every side of Elton John's musical approach, as well as what may very well be his finest vocal moment within his magnificent 1973 song, "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."

As the title track to his extraordinary double-album, "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" is without question the highlight of the record, and many of Elton John's own influences come through quite clearly throughout the song.  There is a certain tone within his piano that makes it immediately recognizable, and on "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," there is a distinctive, almost somber march within his pace and mood that sets the song far apart from the rest of his catalog.  The way in which his piano seamlessly blends with the almost buried guitar of Davey Johnstone stands as one of the finest combinations in history, and if one listens closely to the guitar part, it is as psychedelic a progression as one will find anywhere.  The rhythmic duo of bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson are far more forward in the mix than usual, and the pair seem to almost each take half of each musical bar for their own, passing the rhythm back and forth.  This helps to reinforce the sway and emotion of the song, and there is a unique musical balance throughout "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" that pushes the song far above the rest of John's catalog.  The final element of the string section serves as the ideal finishing touch, and it is this part of the music that makes the bridge and chorus sections truly soar, almost carrying the listener away in the emotion and power of the song.

The string section also helps to highlight the vocals of Elton John, and one can easily argue that his performances on "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" is the finest of his career.  In terms of both vocal range and the emotion he conveys within the song, John knows no limits here, and it is within the almost blissful, lyricless bridge section where one is quickly reminded of the influence of the harmonies of The Beach Boys.  In many ways, this portion of the song could easily have come from one of their albums, as Elton John lets his voice reach its apex, and it remains one of the most stunning moments in all of music history.  Yet the power and emotion he brings to the verses is equally impressive, and there is perhaps no other song in his catalog where the vocals matched as perfectly with the lyrics and one can experience on "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."  As is the case with much of his catalog, the words were written by Bernie Taupin, and one can interpret the defiant words on a number of different levels.  While many take the song as a reference to the contrast in the fame of John versus the want to have a "quiet" life that Taupin desired, lyrics like, " can't plant me in your penthouse, I'm going back to my plough..." can be applied to a wide range of situations.  It is this openly interpreted and wide-range of appeal within the words that serve as an ideal final element to the song, and they remain just as powerful and enjoyable today as they were upon first release.

While there is no arguing that Elton John is absolute "musical royalty," many have likely missed out on his absolutely fantastic recorded catalog due to his close association with the term "soft rock."  Yet if one actually listens to his songs, it is a rare occasion where such a term is fitting, as his music runs the gamut from "glam rock" to blues to soul to more "standard" rock songs.  In fact, a majority of his songs are blends of all of these styles, and it is certainly the case that one finds within "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."  Bringing a massive amount of soul and emotion, and often pushing the sound and mood to one of the more aggressive points in his catalog, the combination of music, lyrics, and tone has rarely been as perfectly balanced as one finds on the song.  The way in which the emotion and tension build throughout the song remains just as potent even after countless listenings, and this in many ways is the true marker of a great song, and much the reason the song rises above the rest of John's catalog.  Furthermore, Elton John manages to walk the thin line of musical extravagance, managing to keep the song from coming off as "over done" or cliché, and this is perhaps the most difficult balance in all of music to achieve.  Though his name alone brings to mind countless songs and images, there is perhaps no more superb a musical moment or better a representation of the brilliance that "is" Elton John than what one can experience in his stellar 1973 single, "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."

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