Forty years ago, Elton John was a complete cipher, making his debut at L.A.’s famed Troubadour club. In the audience and offering total support to the rookie piano-pounder was acclaimed veteran Leon Russell, whose stint with Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour had made him a star, a career boost that he rode into a high profile solo career. Today, Sir Elton’s level of fame is almost beyond quantifying and Russell has become a relative and undeserved obscurity, an asterisked footnote to Rock history.
With The Union, John honors Russell, not by performing his old songs in tribute but by bringing him in as full creative partner with longtime co-writer Bernie Taupin on an album’s worth of new material. Together, the two piano conjurers return to their signature styles — John’s Brit Folk Pop lilt, Russell’s Okie-in-Nawlins swing — which complement each other amazingly well, perhaps because of their mutual love of Gospel. Nowhere is this more evident than on “Gone to Shiloh,” a Civil War-themed hymn that resonates with contemporary relevance as John and Russell blend their voices and keys effortlessly (Neil Young’s guest vocal is appropriately haunting).
The Gospel theme surfaces regularly, from the cultural prayer of “Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes” to the waltz-like majesty of “There’s No Tomorrow,” but Russell’s rollicking, swampy Blues informs rafter-dusters like “Hey Ahab” and “A Dream Come True.” And John sounds positively rejuvenated on the propulsive “Monkey Suit,” a track that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Caribou or Rock of the Westies, while the balladry of “The Best Part of the Day” (featuring John in the lead) and “I Should Have Sent Roses” (with Russell at the helm) are among the best in either artist’s catalog.
Throughout The Union, the familiar melodies and rhythms of John and Russell are woven together to make a brand new sonic tapestry that favors neither one but brilliantly synthesizes both artists. With any luck, The Union signals both another new period of creativity for Elton John and a third or fourth chance for Leon Russell to reignite his once blazing star.