Album Review: “Madman Across The Water” — Elton John (1971)

madmanacrossthewaterElton John’s Madman Across The Water was released in early November of 1971, arriving in stores barely a year after his acclaimed 1970 masterpiece Tumbleweed Connection. Sir Elton was always nothing short of an absolute workhorse; he would continue his “album a year” pattern for a good long while afterward. This of course begged the question, could the quality keep up with the quantity? I would only say that if the result is an album as strong as Madman, then crank away, Reggie.

Madman Across The Water is not only a great followup to Tumbleweed, it is also heralded as one of John’s best albums. Many of the same players returned from the previous album: along with lyricist and celebrated collaborator Bernie Taupin, the album also featured the return of producer Gus Dudgeon, as well as drummer Roger Pope (on three tracks), guitarist Caleb Quayle (four), Dave Glover and Herb Flowers on bass (three each), and future celebrated mainstays Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray on backing vocals (three) and, respectively, drums and bass on “All The Nasties”.

Madman is a darker, more inward-facing work than the previous record. Gone are the “Vast Americana/Wild West” motifs that dominated Tumbleweed; Madman Across The Water is characterized by the internal struggle. Themes of isolation, alienation, failed ambition, abandonment, occupation, debilitation, and the titular-referenced emotional instability are brought to the forefront here. And yet so many of them are wrapped by music of exquisite beauty and studio production, as exemplified by the lush orchestral arrangements by Paul Buckmaster on 7 of the album’s 9 tracks. The shift here is from vignettes and rock-operettas to strong articulation of emphatic emotional appeal.

Not that the album is a total bummer-fest, especially when it opens up with the electric one-two punch of “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon”, two of Elton’s most popular, celebrated, and cherished classic tunes from a vast catalog of cherished classic tunes. There’s little I can say about either tune that hasn’t been said entirely too many times before, except that, because of their impeccable quality, they set an expectation for the rest of the album that simply will not be fulfilled. Not that the rest of the songs aren’t as good, but because these two establish a tableau that simply won’t be revisited. The soaring, etheric vocals, lush supporting strings, singalong choruses, and epic pop bomasticity found here will be basically taken down a few notches for the rest of the album, replaced with something else entirely.

Does it make one wonder if the album would have been better served by separating the pair, thus re-sequencing the track listing to provide a more consistent album experience? Maybe, but 43 years later it’s goshdarn easy to make that kind of judgment. In any case, while both songs were released as singles, neither of them exactly burned up the charts. In the US, “Levon” peaked at #24 and “Tiny Dancer” just missed the Top 40, maxing out at #41. It was only through growing radio acceptance over the years (and that trite, manipulative, and terrible bus scene from the film “Almost Famous”) that they became classic rock/contemporary radio standards.

“Razor Face” is a step down from those two, but let’s be honest, what wouldn’t be? Sounding less tuneful and catchy when compared to the opening tracks, “Razor Face” still manages to successfully convey an elegiac musical expression of discovering beauty in social detritus, framed by touches of John/Taupin grandeur. This leads into the epic Side 1 closer, the album’s title track, and it’s easily as fantastic as the opening classics. Perhaps even moreso. Madman Across The Water is one of the darkest and most haunting songs John has ever recorded. The mental hospital imagery imbues the song with a foreboding sense of isolation, as if a condescending tour group walks through a freakshow tent gazing at the narrator in pity, horror, dismay, whatever you want to call it. The serpentine orchestrations and minor key milieu, heightened by a driving acoustic guitar and John’s ephemeral piano work, make this the most mesmerizing song on the album; possibly one of John’s all-time best.

What’s notable about Madman Across The Water is that it was originally recorded during the Tumbleweed Connection sessions (featuring Mick Ronson on guitar), eventually being held off that album to be re-recorded for this one. It makes a fascinating coda to the theme of that album, that of celebrating and exploring Americana at its finest. Madman Across The Water almost seems like an immediate deconstruction of that approach, as if John and Taupin, while touring the States, found themselves trapped in a mental ward of an America they never expected to find. Two isolated madmen stuck across the pond from the UK. Maybe I’m reading way too much into it. I haven’t the slightest.

Side 2 opens with Indian Sunset, a stunningly beautiful mini-movie of song. Clocking at 6:47, it’s the longest song on the album and so utterly compelling that it flies by like lightning. This was Taupin’s view of the plight of the American Indian in the face of European/American encroachment. Of course this is a subject that, four decades later, has been covered in movies, television, and song so many times that viewing it with contemporary eyes makes it seen almost rote and perfunctory, even cliched. Almost. John’s voice is so perfectly attuned to Taupin’s focused and pitch-perfect lyricism, alongside Buckmaster’s powerful orchestrations and Dudgeon’s sure-hand production, and the song is just magnificent. It’s subtle when it needs to be, yearning then angry then explosive and when it ends… heartbreak.

I’m of the frame of mind that the one-two punch of Madman Across The Water and Indian Sunset is a stronger combo than the opening duo. Or perhaps familiarity breeds… perhaps not contempt, but utter weariness? Does anyone claim that “You Shook Me All Night Long” is the greatest AC/DC song of all time? Thank you.

Moving on… I always enjoyed the tuneful, deeply melodic Holiday Inn, moreso for the music than Taupin’s banal lyrics. The catchy 3/4 time signature, plus Davey Johnstone’s performances on both sitar and mandolin, make this one of the most enjoyable songs to listen to, just on melody alone. Rotten Peaches sings of a landscape littered with failed dreams and squandered potential, and while I’m loathe to use the “over-produced” pejorative in relation to Sir Elton’s work, I think this particular number could have done with a lot more LESS. It’s an odd song, busy and frantically paced, but it doesn’t add up to a whole lot.

The album ends rather quizzically with All The Nasties and GoodbyeAll The Nasties is mostly a really good tune, with beautiful soaring melodies and a strong epic build. Taupin’s lyrics have been analyzed and interpreted time and time again, many people taking them as a reflection of John subduing his sexuality in the face of rejection from his fanbase and potential audience. The song can be viewed as an empowerment piece no matter how you slice it, but it suffers by using the Cantores em Ecclesia Choir to highlight each chorus. It sounds awkward and woefully overdone, almost laughably so. The chorus is much better utilized during the “Oh my soul” outro, giving the song a rising, powerful crescendo of a finale. I really like the song, but that choir on the chorus is a serious misstep.

Goodbye is dripping with tragic sadness, a song given life itself, art speaking directly to its audience, apologetically so.

For I am a mirror
I can reflect the moon
I will write songs for you
I’ll be your silver spoon

I’m sorry I took your time
I am the poem that doesn’t rhyme
Just turn back a page
I’ll waste away, I’ll waste away

The song is short, 1:48 in length, a knowing coda to an album that deals with sadness, insecurity, internal reflection and contemplative angst. Were Taupin and John saying to the listener, “Hey sorry if this bummed you out, but this is exactly where we are right now. Wouldn’t blame you if you’d rather listen to Your Song on 45 instead, trust us, we get it…but thanks for sticking around…”? Who knows. But it’s a powerful piece, a heartbreaking ending to an emotionally naked album.

Madman Across The Water represents the “classic” Elton John in his nascent form. Here he was in full bloom, collaborating with Bernie Taupin alongside the genesis of his most famous band line-up. The album screams “EPIC!!!” from almost every track, and for the most part the work deserves it (Rotten Peaches you can leave the table now). Easily accessible via both its monster radio classics and strong deep album cuts, Madman Across The Water is another high water mark for Elton John, one that shares the peak with the best of his of recorded work.

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