Album Review: Elton John & Leon Russell's 'The Union'
It’s no coincidence that the first voice we hear on Elton John and Leon Russell’s new album, “The Union,” is that of Russell. The album is a complete labor of love by John as a thank you to one of his musical heroes. We’re so glad he didn’t decide to just send a fruit basket.
As John tells it, he and his husband, David Furnish, were on safari and Furnish began playing some of Russell’s music. Memories came flooding back for John, who opened for Russell in 1970 and had always been a big fan. He reconnected with Russell, who had faded into near obscurity, and suggested they work together.
If you don’t know who Leon Russell is, you’re John’s target audience here. Russell is an Oklahoma singer/songwriter, who, in addition to his solo work, has collaborated with Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, George Harrison, Delaney & Bonnie, Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones and just about everyone else you can think of. He also wrote “Superstar,” which was a big hit for many artists including The Carpenters and Luther Vandross, and his only major pop hit as an artist, 1972’s “Tightrope.” His piano playing is inspired and his voice unique--think Willie Nelson with a bit more of a nasal twist.
With “The Union,” John wanted to create an album that reminded people of Russell’s prodigious talent and introduced Russell to a new audience. John has been unabashed in stating that he hopes the project will “improve” Russell’s life.
None of that would amount to anything other than a lovely sentiment if the collaboration didn’t work. But it does...and how. Throw in producer T Bone Burnett, whom John handpicked based on Burnett’s work on Robert Plant/Alison Krauss’s “Raising Sand,” and the trio has created a testament to talent that doesn’t fade even if the spotlight has shifted elsewhere.
Written by John, his longtime partner Bernie Taupin, Russell and Burnett in different combinations with each other, the songs--many mournful, some rollicking--all highlight John’s and Russell’s ability to boogie woogie on the keyboards. Under Burnett’s steady hand, the production is kept minimalist with no unnecessary embellishments. Russell and John’s piano playing and vocals (surrounded with stellar musicians) are all the bells and whistles you need. In fact, we would have pared it back even further, stripping away the female backing vocals on all but “There’s No Tomorrow,” a dirge-like, striking tune built around “Hymn No. 5” by the Mighty Hannibal.
The album succeeds best when Russell and John play off each other, such as on “Hey Ahab.” John sings lead, but in the distance, Russell vamps backing vocals that give the song extra heft and depth, or on the set’s crowning glory, “Gone to Shiloh,” a somber ballad about the bloody Civil War battle. Neil Young joins the twosome for lead on a verse and the sound of the three distinctive voices wrapped around each other on the chorus is a singular delight. The boisterous "Monkey Suit" is 100% fun.
As if a pupil showing off for his teacher, John is at the top of his vocal form here. He sounds reinvigorated and enthusiastic. Many of the songs, such as the chugging “Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream,” which references the Singing Brakeman, would have easily fit in on John’s ‘70s classic “Tumbleweed Connection.”
There’s something intoxicatingly refreshing about an album that is made simply for the joy of making music with an old friend. The good news is that we’re all invited to the reunion.