Review Summary: Elton John's Made in England provides a sense of stability to what had previously been a turbulent and tumultuous career, serving as one of the most consistent front-to-back listens in his catalog.
Perusing through artists with large, dense discographies is a task that can be daunting for even the most musically adventurous reviewers. It's not often that you find something worthwhile in the later parts of a long-lasting artist's career, let alone something worthy of comparison to the artist's best work. Oftentimes it seems the artist in question has their notable work condensed into a small grouping of records, usually early on in their career, and the rest of their work is dismissed as either failed attempts to revive past glories or half-baked pieces designed to bring nothing except stagnation. Certainly Elton John had no reason to produce anything more than a half-baked piece of stagnation in the year 1995. Having slowly climbed his way back to relevance in the pop/adult contemporary landscape after vocal cord surgery and a stint in rehab, the now 48 year-old singer had been dealt a prime hand the previous year with the opportunity to write songs for a little Disney movie called The Lion King. After that movie became an enormous smash and Elton had received heaps of critical and commercial acclaim for songs such as "Circle of Life" and the Oscar and Grammy-winning "Can You Feel the Love Tonight", he had absolutely no reason to be ambitious whatsoever with his next record (studio album #25, as it turns out). And one wouldn't expect Elton to want to be, considering this was the most stable his career had been in a decade and he was in no hurry to relinquish this stability.
Somehow, though, Made in England
manages to strike a really nice balance when it comes to ambition and effort. What I mean by that is: it's not particularly ambitious at all, with no real driving concept (see Captain Fantastic
), no gimmicks (see Victim of Love
...ugh), and little in the way of controversial lyrics (see The One
, his previous record). Yet there's not a single song on this album that I would say is half-assed; you can feel there's care given to every song on here, that each track has some significance to Elton and long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin. With the exception of the title track, all of the songs were given one-word titles, presumably to signify a return to simplicity and, as mentioned previously, a return to stability for Elton in particular. And it's not hard to notice that both Elton's music and Taupin's lyrics seem more natural and organic, less jaded than they had been before (again, see The One
if you want to hear some of the most cynical lyrics in the Elton catalog).
In a way, the atmosphere of this album fits the title to a tee. The entire record sounds very English, from the stylistic influences of the music, to the instrumentation, and to the production as well. Greg Penny replaces long-time Elton producer Chris Thomas on this record, and after listening to his work on here, one wonders why Thomas returned for the following record, The Big Picture
. This album sounds as clear and pristine as any of the early 70's albums, if not even more so. I love the way that the piano and synths are mixed together, allowing one to enhance the other when needed but never having either be overwhelmed. (Listen to "House" for my personal favorite example of that.) Every instrument is set just right in the mix, giving the record a really warm sound that makes for a most welcome change from anything Elton had released in the past two decades (when the records either were too quiet, poorly mixed, tinny, or just didn't stand out whatsoever). Another notable name featured on this record for the first time in almost 20 years is Paul Buckmaster, string arranger extraordinaire who had previously contributed his skills to such classic Elton tunes as "Your Song", "Tiny Dancer", and "Levon". He only contributes to four songs on this record, but it's clear he hasn't missed a beat when it comes to his knowledge of how to create counter-melodies to the main melodic line that do nothing but enhance it, without distracting from it at all. Consider the album opener "Believe", a surprisingly dark ode to the power of love that recalls themes and even a bit in the way of production from The One
while still maintaining its own distinct feel. Buckmaster's strings are prominent throughout, particularly at the ends of choruses and in the interlude in the middle, helping add to the so-called "wall of sound" that this track possesses. (Of course, this style of production is then quickly thrown away for the title track, a relatively fast-paced rocker that gets awarded brownie points for having easily the catchiest melody on the record.)
Going back to the heavily English nature of the record, three consecutive tracks from the middle of the album can be used to best display said influence. The track "Belfast" doesn't really mince any words, clearly describing the Irish town whilst utilizing bagpipes and an accordion to create a sonic image for the listeners. Buckmaster's strings feature the most prominently on here thanks to a nearly two minute-long intro that reprises a motif from "Believe". The song "Latitude" also features a great string arrangement, although this time legendary Beatles producer George Martin is the one who contributes it, throwing in some French horns for good measure. Elton's musical right-hand man Davey Johnstone contributes mandolins and banjos which help the imagery as well, but Martin's arrangement really makes the song. Listen in particular to the counter-melody the strings get for the final chorus; as subtle as it is, it adds some great flair and really livens the track up as it reaches its conclusion. The track "Please" clearly draws some influence from early to mid-60's Beatles when it comes to the guitar lines and the vocal harmonies in the chorus, clearly standing out as the most whimsical track on the record. The rhythm section on here (and on the rest of the album as well, particularly the title track) is really solid, with Bob Birch and Charlie Morgan locking together well on bass and drums respectively.
The only slight misstep on this album is the track "Man", which succumbs a bit too much to over-dramatization in both its lyrics and its gospel-influenced instrumentation. Such a misstep is excusable, however, as the two tracks that follow it close off the album in perfectly suitable fashion: "Lies" manages to overcome relatively unmemorable verses with a great chorus hook and some blazing piano arpeggios from Elton, and "Blessed" is a passionate and heartfelt dedication to the soon-to-be-born son of Bernie Taupin, with Elton's vocals and the warm synthesizers layered in the background doing a wonderful job of representing those emotions aurally. This pair of songs plays into the sense of happiness and optimism that was brought up earlier: if one were to get superficially metaphorical, it could be interpreted that in the end, love and truth ("Blessed") will prevail over lies ("Lies") every single time. A done-to-death message perhaps, but hey, I guess it proves there is some substance to this album, for anyone who may have doubted.
You certainly won't get a rash of Elton John fans telling you that Made in England
is his best album; to even consider it one of his best records is an opinion not commonly held even by diehards. But as I see it, this is one of his most consistent front-to-back listens; a sonically blissful record that plays it safe, but does so with great care. There's real sincerity and passion on this album that's combined with a very contented feeling, a combination not seen out of Elton in at least two decades, if ever at all. There's not much of a noticeable dip in song quality, either, and the production is as good as anything in Elton's catalog, if not better. Certainly one could argue for other later records such as Songs From the West Coast
over this one and have very valid reasons for doing so, but if nothing else, Made in England
stands out as one of Elton's best records from post-1975, and arguably one of the strongest releases of his career.