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Elton John finds 'room to breathe' on 'The Diving Board'

Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin say not feeling pressured to make Top 40 radio with 'The Diving Board' has freed and excited them.

September 24, 2013|By Mikael Wood
  • Elton John performs old and new material, including songs from his new album "The Diving Board," with USC Thornton School of Music students at Bovard Auditorium.
Elton John performs old and new material, including songs from his new album… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

On Oct. 25, 1975, Elton John played the first of two sold-out concerts at Dodger Stadium for a combined audience of 110,000 people. The gigs helped establish John as one of the most theatrical pop stars in the world: a piano-pounding dynamo prowling the stage in a bedazzled Dodgers uniform.

Last week, John was back in L.A., performing in a somewhat cozier, more decorous space: the 1,200-seat Bovard Auditorium at USC.

The show paired the English superstar with students from the Thornton School of Music for stately renditions of hits like "Levon" and "Your Song," as well as a handful of thoughtful new tunes (including one about Oscar Wilde).

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By John's flamboyant standards, it was pretty sedate. But his voice was clear and powerful, booming through the auditorium with strength and precision.

"I think I've learned how to sing better every year, and I've been singing now for 40-something years," he said before the concert in a trailer parked outside the Bovard. In a few hours he would change into a sparkly jacket, but for now he was wearing a black-and-white tracksuit as he sipped a cup of milky tea. "My voice and my piano playing are in the best shape and sound they've ever been in. And listen, if I can say that at 66 …" He trailed off, laughing with what seemed like a touch of incredulity.

That voice and piano are at the heart of "The Diving Board," a new album due out Tuesday on which he returns to the bare-bones trio setting he hasn't employed since the early '70s, when a six-night stand at the Troubadour — his first performances in the United States — led former Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn to open his review with one word: "Rejoice."

Handsomely played and rich with the kind of detailed storytelling for which John's longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin is known, "The Diving Board" shares something with classics such as "Tumbleweed Connection" and "Madman Across the Water." But if it represents a throwback — the first single is called "Home Again" — the album also feels like John's attempt to stand out in today's hyperactive pop scene.

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"I'm not into clutter at the moment," he said. "When you've got more room to breathe, you don't have to shout above the noise."

The record, which T Bone Burnett produced, follows "The Union," John's acclaimed 2010 collaboration with the singer-songwriter Leon Russell, whom he called one of his artistic idols. Not long after the release of that album, also overseen by Burnett, John and the producer were discussing options for their next project over lunch in L.A.

"And I said to Elton, 'Why don't we just do a trio record?'" Burnett recalled. He'd seen one of John's legendary Troubadour shows and thought it might be time to try to recapture "the raw beauty of Elton's piano playing."

John agreed, and so Burnett quickly assembled a band — Jay Bellerose on drums and the neo-soul fixture Raphael Saadiq on bass — and the musicians began laying down tracks at a studio on the Westside. (In addition to maintaining homes in France, England and elsewhere, John and his partner David Furnish live part-time in L.A., where both of their young sons were born.)

Though he was using a method from his early days, John said the goal was an album "appropriate for my age," meaning one with a minimum of the sort of showboating he once favored. As Burnett said, "A person looks silly trying to do things in his 50s and 60s that he would've done in his teens and 20s. It's unbecoming."

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For others, perhaps, but not quite for John, who last year scored a No. 1 record in Britain with "Good Morning to the Night," a set of sleek dance-pop remixes he made with the Australian duo Pnau.

Still, Burnett isn't wrong when he says "The Diving Board" carries a whiff of the "fully grown-up music" Frank Sinatra was making in the mid to late 1950s on albums like "In the Wee Small Hours" and "Only the Lonely." And it's that "emotional honesty," as John described it, that has the singer more excited about the new project than any he's done in years, he said.

"When T Bone played me the album, the minute it was finished, my cellphone rang," said Steve Barnett, head of John's label, Capitol Records. "It was Elton, calling from Buenos Aires: 'So what'd you think?'"

Of course, enthusiasm only gets one so far in a pop marketplace loaded with marquee fourth-quarter releases by the likes of Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake, not to mention fellow veterans such as Paul McCartney and Sting.

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