Review Summary: An interesting debut album, but only necessary for die hard fans.
Elton John's first album was released in the UK in June of 1969. US fans would have to wait until 1975, at which point Elton was a superstar. It all starts here with Empty Sky, an album that could fit well into the psychedelic category of the late 1960s. Most of Bernie's lyrics here are rather interesting, and Elton's melodies are already beginning to gel. Unfortunately, as with some debut albums, there lacks a sense of purpose.
The album begins strongly with the title cut Empty Sky. At over 8 minutes in length Elton and Caleb (guitarist) rock out in this extended jam. At times it feels like you're on a train gliding over the tracks. This train however never seems to know where it's going to stop as with Empty Sky.
The next track has a medieval feel with Valhalla. Elton is playing multiple instruments, including both piano and harpsichord. While this works well, there is one problem. John doesn't sound convincing as he sings the lyrics (the sea dogs have all sailed their ships, into he docks of dawn). He sounds confused and seems to lack confidence in his ability to work a song. The chords are neat but they don't reach a melodic peak, they just drone on.
Western Ford Gateway sounds like a song that could have fit on Elton's third album Tumbleweed Connection. This is finally where similar to the Empty Sky track, he is able to find a proper hook for the chorus. As with most of the album, it takes a while to get used to these obscure lyrics.
Hymn 2000 really puts this album into the psychedelic category. It opens with flute and acoustic guitar. Here's where Elton and Bernie get lost once again. Bernie seems to question religion (and who wrote the bible, was it Judas or Pilot" Well one cleans his hands, while the other one hangs, but still I continue to stand.) The piano chords are very dissonant and the song doesn't really go anywhere.
Side two opens with Lady What's Tomorrow. The more I hear this songs the less I seem to enjoy it. The chords are delightful and the chorus is not much different from Billy Joel's She's Got A Way. However, the lyrics are naïve (Remember when you were nine, and I was ten" We would run into the woods, no we never will again.) Elton can't save this song as he sings like someone has a gun to his head.
Sails is similar to the Empty Sky title track as it's a rocker. Elton and Caleb once again battle each other for attention. I feel that the electric piano works well and makes the listener feel that the tides are hitting the shore. The song reaches a peak with the chorus, where Elton really belts it out. (While the seagulls were screaming, Lucy was eating.) Bernie wanted this song to have a peaceful feel, while his partner turns it into thrill ride.
The Scaffold hands down is the worst track on the entire album. Once again the electric piano is featured but neither the lyrics or melody gel. The song just meanders and the chorus just sounds like the verses.
Skyline Pigeon would eventually become a live staple and is the best written song on the album. In 1972, Elton would record the song again with piano to much greater effect. Here we have what sounds like a church hymn. It's nice and as much as I like the harpsichord I feel piano would have fit better. The organ comes in the second verse and at this point it's overblown. John lacks conviction again when singing the song and that makes a difference.
Gulliver is a medley of songs that starts with what sounds like a funeral for the death of a dog. It's very melancholy, and not much different from songs like We All Fall In Love Sometimes or Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word. At first, this song is very intriguing. (Gulliver's gone with the final command of his master. His watery eyes had washed all the hills his laughter). Finally, Elton and Bernie's lyrics come together and fit like a glove. The chorus is even better, and Elton gives it an emotional feel with his voice. (There's four feet of ground in front of the barn...) By the end of this part of the song, Elton is wailing like a little child. All of a sudden the funeral turns into a blues jam. This piece is called Hay Chewed (obviously a play on words for Hey Jude). I used to think this was awesome but it feels out of place. It's going from the depths of despair to musical euphoria in the same song and it disrupts the listener's attention. After the jam is over we are left with a snippet of each song (Reprise) until it arrives back to Elton's cry on the last track. This was a bad idea as to who would want to hear the songs again as you've already listened to them before"
Empty Sky without a doubt is an interesting artifact. While recorded well, there really isn't anything that great despite a few cuts (Empty Sky, Western Ford Gateway, Sails, Skyline Pigeon and Gulliver). The next album would find the duo's true strengths. What you're left with on this album is naivety and pretentiousness at it's finest.