It’s time to dig yet again into the Elton John archives. Ten years have passed since the release of the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition.
Happily, the four-CD, one-DVD set to commemorate the album’s 40th anniversary is more than mere record label recycling. Included are a CD of GBYBR songs covered by contemporary artists, two discs of a 1973 concert with John and his band in top form, a handsome 100-page hardcover book and a DVD of a long out-of-print 1973 documentary by the British filmmaker Bryan Forbes.
The artists performing the covers are younger than the original album, a testament to its durability. Best is English singer Ed Sheeran, who transforms Candle In the Wind into strummy folk, and Irish musician Imelda May, who applies rockabilly zeal to Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘n Roll). Alas, Fall Out Boy reduce Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting) into a pep rally, and an R&B/rap remake of Bennie and the Jets by Grammy winner Miguel and Wale never takes off.
John’s original album has been remastered yet again and sounds better than ever. The loud-to-soft contrasts are remarkable for a pop record, rewarding owners of quality headphones or loudspeakers. Dee Murray’s underrated bass work, Nigel Olsson’s angelic high harmonies and Davey Johnstone’s seven guitar parts on Saturday Night can be appreciated as never before.
Like the dynamic range, the range of material remains impressive. A musical sponge from childhood, John was at his prolific peak when the two-disc LP, 17-song set was written and recorded in a span of just two weeks. Bernie Taupin’s cinematic lyrics become Technicolor tunes, and GBYBR is an unsurpassed distillation of rock’s golden era spanning both sides of the Atlantic.
John draws on the Beatles and the Stones, the Beach Boys and the Band, Bob Marley, Soul Train, Jerry Lee Lewis and Liberace, and makes it all his own. It helps that he’s in the best voice of his career.
The lyrics are surprisingly dark, given the sunny melodies, and by the end of what used to be Side 3, we have a dead bootlegger, a dead lesbian and a dead Marilyn Monroe. The album is a funeral for one friend after another, and much more. It’s electric music, solid walls of sound, cocky, campy, lovely, naughty, silly and, 40 years later, still fun. Comic book characters never grow old. Can’t wait for the 50th Anniversary Super Duper Deluxe Edition.