Review Summary: Listen to me good.
It's hard to say if Elton John envisioned Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
to be his definitive artistic statement from Day 1, but what is certain is that Elton intended for it to be a step above other records he had made in recent years. Known for recording his albums in remarkably short periods of time (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
was written in three days and recorded in two weeks), the pop star took a month to record this album in between tours. Another noticeable change in the formula is how Captain Fantastic
lacks, at least comparatively, the overt commercial sound of the traditional pop record. Only one single was released from the record, and only two tracks clock in under four minutes in length. By no means is this a set-up for a revolutionary album, one that transforms pop music forever, but it does present itself as a rather strange bird in the Elton John catalog.
Additionally, Captain Fantastic
dabbles with a premise that would normally fall flat on its face due to the sheer hubris of it: writing a musical autobiography. But there is a strength to Elton's approach on this album that makes it work; namely, the fact that this isn't just an autobiography of Elton, but of his lyricist and musical collaborator Bernie Taupin. By adding this extra component, we not only get to witness the two writers' perspectives on their own separate lives, but also on how their lives intertwine with one another. The sequencing of the record reflects this as well, alternating between Elton-centric songs ("Bitter Fingers", "Someone Saved My Life Tonight") and Bernie-centric tracks ("Tell Me When the Whistle Blows", "(Gotta Get a) Meal Ticket") to create an overarching narrative that is surprisingly well-formed.
The striking thing about this record is its sheer consistency. Even the very best Elton John records have their share of filler, but the narrative of Captain Fantastic
requires each track to have significance, even if some are slighter than others. Elton and Bernie manage to tell their respective stories in a way that doesn't seem sincerely melodramatic: any over-exaggeration of the dynamics is done in either a tongue-in-cheek manner or in a way that serves to benefit the songs themselves. If there is an exception to this, it's "Someone Saved My Life Tonight", which details Elton's 1968 suicide attempt and his gratitude to several people (specifically his former bandleader Long John Baldry) for helping him make it through his struggles. Given the subject matter, such an exception is certainly warranted, and Elton makes the most of it by steadily increasing the song's intensity throughout, with additional instruments and backing vocals layering over each other gradually to create an intense sonic climax in the final chorus and through the outro. It's an incredibly emotional song and arguably the pinnacle of Elton's abilities as a songwriter.
The Elton John Band is on top of their game, per usual, with all the members gelling with one another immaculately. There might not be as much of a groove
as there was on albums like Honky Chateau
("(Gotta Get a) Meal Ticket" being the prime exception here), but there's more nuance this time around as Elton and Co. play around with more interesting textures and instrument combinations. It is this peak in professionalism that really makes Captain Fantastic
stand out amongst the entire Elton John oeuvre. With as many good examples as there are of Elton John as a performer, Captain Fantastic
is a terrific demonstration of Elton John as a musician. Not only do these songs possess the usual high quality Elton melodicism, but there is a real attention to album flow and orchestration here that none of his other albums possess to this degree. The fact that it is also likely his most personal record only heightens its impact. Rough times would be ahead for the pop superstar, both commercially and critically, but it's doubtful Elton could have ended his classic period any better than he did here.