Album Review: “Tumbleweed Connection” — Elton John (1970)

Elton_John_-_Tumbleweed_ConnectionElton John’s late 1970 release Tumbleweed Connection represents his second album of the year, dropping a scant six months after his breakthrough self-titled album made him a household name in the US. While the earlier album felt more like an early 70s “singer-songwriter” effort, generating three top-40 singles (including the smash “Your Song”), Tumbleweed Connection represented an entirely different affair. John and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin went full-on conceptual with the project, pulling themes, musical motives, storylines and styles that hearken back to the Old West, Deep South, and mining the myth of Americana for all its worth.

And why not? Both men freely admitted to being bugfork infatuated with and influenced by The Band’s Music From Big Pink, but they were far from the only major artists of the era to be striking that particular pose. The Kinks went whole-hog the same way with their fantastic 1971 album Muswell Hillbillies (and to a lesser extent with their 1972 follow-up Everybody’s In Show-Biz). The Rolling Stones landmark 1972 album Exile On Main St. had a style firmly lodged in the blues, country, and soul of the American south. Even out on the left coast, the Southern California rock movement, mixing rock with country, was spreading like gangbusters, exemplified by the blockbuster self-titled debut release from The Eagles in 1972, but even then traceable to the work of The Byrds, The Monkees (specifically Michael Nesmith’s songs), Gram Parsons, CCR, and way too many others.

So no, Tumbleweed Connection didn’t exactly emerge from a vacuum. It was as much a product of its time as many other contemporary albums. It was, however, and still very much is, one of The Great Classic Rock Albums. Not just of the era, but of all time. All Killer, No Filler, as it were. There’s no other Elton John album like it and, as a result, it remains one of the freshest, boldest, most assured, and most cohesive and exhilarating albums in his entire catalog.

It’s also my personal favorite, but maybe that assertion is just beau monde overkill at this point. So be it.

What makes Tumbleweed Connection such a memorable and engaging listening experience is its cohesiveness as a project; it yields it richest rewards when absorbed from start to finish. This pervasive unity is codified by the strength of storytelling on display. Each track establishes a sense of time, milieu, and dramatic urgency — be it in the Wild West, Confederate-era South, the plantations of Virginia, an idyllic Main Street of Anytown USA, flowing gently down a river into parts unknown, or even the quiet creaky staircase of a home shared with a lover. There’s a story to be told, an overall feeling to be explored, fleeting moments caught in time, all of these vignettes explored and portrayed in grand detail or vague ambiguities, or perhaps anywhere in between.

The sepia-toned album cover, featuring John and Taupin sitting in a slightly ragged-looking train station, sets the tone for not only the entire album but the opening track “Ballad of a Well-Known Gun”. Earlier album demos took Taupin’s tale of a justice finally catching up with a weathered fugitive/outlaw and set it to a more traditional country-rock uptempo beat, but the album track breaks it down to a 2/4 time and imbues with a sense of New Orleans-styled swing, and its a beaut. John sings the hell out of the tune (which sounds almost proto-Little Feat) and is given a wonderful assist on the chorus by Dusty Springfield. This is one of those openers that exemplifies the entire album in the best possible way.

“Come Down In Time” is a gentle ballad, weaving slice-of-life threads about trust and intimacy above a backdrop punctuated by interludes of harp and oboe. The lyrics are evocative of setting and uncertainty, of a still, barely moon-lit evening, with long shadows portentous of a presence that may or may not materialize as promised or expected. Haunting and lovely, this is a standout number on an album almost entirely comprised of standout numbers.

Slide guitars and the relaxing joys of down-home familiarity keep the momentum going in “Country Comfort”, which is typified by Taupin as “any truck that’s goin’ home.” This is easily the most traditionally “country” sounding track on the album, and John easily slips into that mode without missing a step. The song paints a vivid portrait of the simple pleasures of the narrator’s small town life — what’s going on in the kitchen, at church, at the factory, or on the farm — and the song is an earnest, melodic, harmonious joy.

We’re not entirely sure what happened to cause two farmers (or a farmer and a vagrant, I’m not entirely sure) to kill each other in the darkly comic morality tale of “Son of Your Father”, but it’s wrapped up in such joyously uptempo, Southern-fried, honky-tonk piano-driven rhythm and blues that the song is rapturous. The gospel-esque backing vocals on the chorus add to the sermon-like quality of the number. The patriarchal theme continues with the slower, sobering “My Father’s Gun”, a Civil War-era tale about a young Confederate soldier who buries his killed-by-a-Yankee father. He picks up his father’s weapon and heads (hopefully) to New Orleans to continue his father’s crusade, all the while dreaming of returning (hopefully) to his lands and family in peace and victory. There’s a bit of a Dixieland feel to the chorus, while the verses are tastefully sparse and direct. Again, this is musical storytelling at its most evocative. The soldier will most likely find the same fate as his father, the South will be decimated by war and victory will never happen. But for a moment there’s a sense of hope, a glimmer of a happy ending for him, all while the riverboat he’s riding delivers him to a future that he can’t even begin or even want to envision.

Side 2 starts out with my favorite album track, “Where To Now St. Peter?”, a brilliantly constructed, beautifully sung, and unforgettable song that finds both Taupin and John at the top of their respective games. Taupin’s tale details a soldier who has been killed in battle — perhaps the father or son from “My Father’s Gun” — and is about to find out where his eternal fate lies, in accordance with the titular character’s judgments.

I took myself a blue canoe
And I floated like a leaf
Dazzling, dancing
Half enchanted
In my Merlin sleep

John gives the song a sense of flow and movement, like the proverbial blue canoe in the opening lyrics quote above. There’s a sense of otherworldliness that is underscored by Caleb Quaye’s haunting guitar riff that flows in and out of the verses, while the acoustic guitar fingerpicking and steady drumwork drive the song along like a raft down the Mississippi, flowing into the next world. It’s a breathtaking number.

I’m not entirely enchanted with “Love Song”, the only non-Taupin/John original on the album. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it; ostensibly it’s a good song, a cautious reminder from one half of a relationship to the other that love requires both partners to turn their keys before actively engaging. It’s dark, moody, and drenched in minor-key pragmatism, but it seems slightly out-of-place for the remainder of the album. I appreciate the song, even like it for the most part, but it doesn’t engender the same amount of affection that the other songs do with disarming ease.

Now the same can definitely not be said about “Amoreena”, a country/Cajun/swinging joy from start to finish. Perhaps most widely known as the song the runs during the opening credits of the classic Sidney Lumet/Al Pacino film Dog Day Afternoon, “Amoreena” has bounce, sass, verve, life, joyousness, a love of love itself in every note played, every percussive beat, every bit of driving rhythm, and in every word sung. Try to not fall in love with “Amoreena”. I dare you.

“Talking Old Soldiers” is cabaret by way of the ol’ saloon, a slower theatrical piano-based piece about a chance meeting of generations, the old man who has seen and lost everything, and the young man who absorbs the old man’s tales and reasssures him of the value of his memories. While it’s not one of the album’s better songs, I enjoy it for its tenderness and simplicity. It’s one of those “give the album a real sense of flavor” tracks.

Nothing like a big album closer to really drive the point home though, and this is accomplished via the classic number “Burn Down The Mission”, a musically complex yet wonderfully rendered ballad/anthem that became a staple of Sir Elton’s live show for decades. A strangely vague tale of rebellion, struggle, and consequence, the song is a triumph of both musical movement, lyrical composition, and harmonic delight, an epic closer to such an unbelievably great album.

Tumbleweed Connection is, as I previously mentioned, unlike any other album in Elton John’s catalog. While his other releases of the era like Madman Across The WaterHonky Chateau seen reasonably similar (or show growth along a similarly sloping curve), Tumbleweed Connection is off on another planet entirely.  By the mega blockbuster era of Captain Fantastic and Goodbye Yellow Brick RoadTumbleweed Connection seems like a curious footnote of a forgotten era. But while it may have been relatively “forgotten” compared to its larger selling brethren, it is just as beloved (if not even more adored) by the deep fans for its vision, consistency, quality, and memorable content. This isn’t just a great album; Tumbleweed Connection is an essential one.

Also worth checking out is the 2008 Deluxe Edition CD, containing a great country-rock take on “Ballad of a Well-Known Gun”, demos, outtakes, and BBC sessions. Also worth tracking down is a most excellent bootleg entitled Tumbleweed Collection, a great collection of demos, session work, and live performances.

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