Review Summary: How does it feel to know you can't go home?Part IV: In Which A So-Called "Stone-Cold Classic" Is Set Aflame by Cold, Harsh Reality
After Tumbleweed Connection
's lack of substantive impact on the singles charts, it was inevitable that 1971's follow-up album Madman Across the Water
would represent a return to the commercial safe-haven that had greeted Elton John so favorably the year previously. (Ironically, despite its more commercial sound Madman
still holds the record for worst-charting Elton album of all-time in the U.K.) Nevertheless, making a record with the relative ambition of Tumbleweed
had only sharpened the already-present composing skills of the burgeoning star. Much of Madman
shows Elton and lyricist Bernie Taupin playing with darker, more complex ideas than ever before, with Taupin's lyrics no longer hiding their messages in dense subtext. Not that they would have any reason to do so, mind you -- most of the tracks here are character portraits, often in the form of a first-person diatribe. The title track is a premiere example of this, portraying the ramblings of a resident in an insane asylum as well as one can while still keeping the song relatively accessible. Paul Buckmaster's string arrangements, Chris Spedding's guitar riffs and Elton's raving piano/vocal performances create a feeling of musical schizophrenia that's equal parts effective and enjoyable.
Most of the best qualities of Madman
can be attributed to the production, which achieves a clarity that, one could argue, no other Elton John album would ever match. The opening piano arpeggiations of both "Tiny Dancer" and "Levon" ring through with crystalline perfection, and the absolutely immaculate mixing of the former track (combined with one of Elton's best chorus hooks) makes the normally unforgivable sin of repeating the same exact three minutes of music twice in the same song, well, forgivable. Similarly, while "Indian Sunset" lyrically is a rather ham-fisted, cliche-driven portrait of a young Iroquois watching his world shattered by the intrusion of the white man, the brass and string arrangements coupled with Elton's vocal sit together remarkably well in the mix, making for an excellent 6 minute-long sonic journey.
Unfortunately, the main problem that Madman
has is an excruciatingly big one, and one that (at least in this reviewer's eyes) prevents it from ranking among the upper echelon of Elton albums. This record is maddeningly front-loaded from a track-listing standpoint, with the aforementioned four clear highlights serving as four of the first five tracks on the album. Once the final notes of "Indian Sunset" fade out, the speed with which Madman
nose-dives in quality is damn near laudable. None of the remaining songs boast the joyously cinematic feel of their predecessors, although "All the Nasties" does try its best with the inclusion of a choir that unfortunately isn't given much of a melody to work with. Both "Holiday Inn" and "Rotten Peaches" feel like second-rate outtakes from Tumbleweed Connection
, laced with a country/Americana feel that does not fit well at all with the rest of the album, musically or thematically. By the time "Goodbye" arrives as the send-off track, its effectiveness has been diluted substantially thanks to the messiness of the sequencing, which is a shame because it does serve as a relatively touching closer.
Madman Across the Water
is an interesting case study in the debate of "what gives an album merit". Is it merely the quality of the songs that determine whether an album is "great" or not, or is the album's flow equally (or more) important a factor? An album like Madman
may contain four great songs, potentially four brilliant songs that rank among the finest in the artist's discography, but pairing them with several other tracks that sit squarely in the confines of mediocrity will inevitably hurt most listeners' opinion of the record. This is especially true if the album (intentionally or not) designates a point at which the average listener can turn it off, and unless you are a die-hard Elton John fan, there is almost no reason to continue past "Indian Sunset" on this record. The amount that this ineffective sequencing hurts Madman
will vary from person to person (as you can see, this reviewer was particularly put off by it), but regardless, most Elton fans would still agree that the best albums of his are still on the horizon, just a little bit closer now than before...