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Elton John & Leon Russell – The Union

Elton John/Leon Russell, The Union

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

LISTENING to The Union, which marks the keenly anticipated union of Elton John and Leon Russell, I’m reminded of watching a movie deemed ‘Oscar-worthy’.

It’s a heavy-weight collaboration in every sense… from the pooling together of two musical giants, to the production presence of multiple award-winner and legend in his own sense, T Bone Burnett. Awards would seem to beckon.

And yet, as undeniably good as the album is throughout… there’s a sense that this is aware of its own credentials and would almost be distraught were it not to be recognised come Grammy time.

The Union marks the first time Elton John and Leon Russell have worked together since 1970 and was recorded live in the studio with John and Russell on duelling pianos.

It also features a variety of music genres, from R&B, soul, gospel, country, pop and rock. Icons such as Neil Young and Brian Wilson provide guest vocals on the 14-track epic, along with legendary R&B organist Booker T Jones, steel guitarist Robert Randolph and a 10-piece gospel choir.

On some occasions, it plays to John’s strength in penning piano-based ballads, on others it indulges Russell’s penchant for gospel infused southern boogie piano rock, blues and country music… and sometimes it goes all out to be different.

Each track is meticulously delivered so as to showcase the talents of its main men, as well as the strength of its supporting cast – but it only ever hits some true highs on two or three occasions.

In that sense, I guess, it’s like a really good costume drama… everything fits well and is impeccably timed and performed. But there are few moments that exhilarate by virtue of something daring or really edgy. It’s a little too polished.
This is particularly true of tracks like Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes and Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody), which ones suspects John could produce in his sleep. They’re heartfelt, moving and as smoothly delivered as you’ve come to expect from John – only lacking in excitement.

If anything, the album works best when playing more to Russell’s strengths… as on the rousing Hey Ahab, which is a fantastic showcase of both men’s piano prowess. It’s a pounding rocker that really is worth returning to time and time again.

Lead single If It Wasn’t For Bad is a great jumping off point, a jovial slice of New Orleans rooted swamp funk that’s further blessed with some witty lyricism, while Monkey Suit kind of whips the listener up into a head-spinning fusion of old school rock values (a la Status Quo and the Rolling Stones) with some of the swagger of Oasis. John and Russell are clearly having fun and their gospel-backed dueting is infectious.

There’s an infectious sense of the Deep South party-loving lifestyle on the rousing A Dream Come True, which positively gallops along, sweeping you along with it, while Gone To Shiloh displays the sombre, more thought-provoking side of the album’s make-up, enabling the pianos to take on a cinematic, even classical feel, while Russell, John and Neil Young trade verses over a haunting civil war tale. It’s one of the moments the album stops you in your tracks and makes you really sit back and listen.

There’s a deliciously bluesy vibe, too, on the mournful I Should Have Sent Roses, which again demonstrates the album’s ability to come over cinematic. Russell takes lead vocals and his gruff style is perfectly suited to the sombre tone… as it is the more southern boogie leaning Hearts Have Turned To Stone.

It’s during these aforementioned moments that the album catches light… which makes it’s more average moments all the more disappointing. Hence, what should have been a five-star classic falls just short. It’s still to be recommended, and will almost certainly become awards-laden, but not in the entirely thrilling sense that the best, most daring and most innovative winners are.

Download picks: If It Wasn’t For Bad, Monkey Suit, Hey Ahab, Hearts Have Turned To Stone, I Should Have Sent Roses, Gone To Shiloh, A Dream Come True

Track listing:

  1. If It Wasn’t For Bad
  2. Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes
  3. Hey Ahab
  4. Gone To Shiloh
  5. Jimmie Rodger’s Dream
  6. There’s No Tomorrow
  7. Monkey Suit
  8. The Best Part Of The Day
  9. A Dream Come True
  10. I Should Have Sent Roses
  11. When Love Is Dying
  12. Hearts Have Turned To Stone
  13. Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody)
  14. The Hands of Angels