Classic Album: Elton John – Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

Managing to traverse the chasm between critics favourite and global commercial acceptance at the same time as David Bowie, the former Reg Dwight seemingly had the best of both worlds by the mid 70s. Like Bowie, he had segued almost effortlessly from lauded singer-songwriter to glam rock icon (and, lest we forget, had even cracked the American charts before him) and both were now enjoying the fruits of their labour. Things were looking good. Critics loved them, their singles charted every time, and their albums were hailed as modern masterpieces.

Things weren’t all rosey though. Bowie had released the tepid covers album Pin Ups and had foolishly dismissed one of the finest three piece rock bands of the era from his employment, yet had still managed to record and release the evocative Diamond Dogs. Elton John meanwhile had reached the creative apex of his career with the world-beating Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and had followed that up with the rushed and sub-par Caribou (though even that dip in form resulted in the frankly brilliant “The Bitch is Back” single).

In an attempt to crack America once and for all, Bowie’s creative muse had plummeted previously unknown depths with the plastic-soul of Young Americans, whereas Elton maintained an iron-grip on the American charts and so was limbering up with the luxuriantly packaged and gloriously titled Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. Whereas Goodbye Yellow Brick Road sprawled in a manner which displayed the diversity of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s collective muse in the most favourable manner possible, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy sounded considerably more bloated and confident. This was the album where they realised that they had nothing left to prove and that they could pretty much do as they pleased, hence an almost self-congratulatory auto-biographical concept album which told their story from their childhoods, through the struggle of their early musical forays, to the first steps along the golden road to success.

Thing is, as gripping as they may have found their own life stories, it didn’t really translate into a collection of world beating tunes. There are moments of greatness for sure, such as the title track and the celebrated “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”, but on the whole Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy labours under the weight of their own self-confidence. While I’m sure that both Elton and Bernie intended this album to be the crowning glory of their career, in truth it signalled the end of their golden period. True, the slide had perhaps started with the under-cooked Caribou, but the time and effort evidently put into Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy should have managed to stall any slide in quality control. Sadly it didn’t and the dip in form continued, Elton became more and more of a caricature and it would be a good quarter of a century until he managed to regain an iota of his lost credibility.

In many ways Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy is the last hurrah for classic period Elton John. It’s solid where it should be world beating, and it lacks the commercial punch of his best work. If you’re unfamiliar with EltonJohn at his peak, this isn’t the album to start with (you’re probably better off chancing your arm with his eponymous sophomore effort and working chronologically from there), and anything after this should probably come with a health warning saying “Here be caricature Elton John”.

At about the same time that Bowie abandoned thrilling rock and roll for chilly art-rock, Elton equally lost sight of just what it was that had made him such a success in the first half of the 70s. It could be argued that while both of them enjoyed brief flashes of commercial brilliance over the next quarter of a century, neither of them would truly reconnect with the spirit of their best work until Elton’s Songs From the West Coast and Bowie’s Heathen.

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