(October 23, 2021). Wouldn’t it be nice if Elton John’s new album The Lockdown Sessions enters the Billboard 200 chart at No. 1 next week?
After all, he was the very first artist to accomplish that feat back in June 1975 when Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy debuted at No. 1, and then he followed that by having the second album ever to debut at the top with Rock Of The Westies just five months later.
In other words, Elton John was pulling off Taylor Swift-type chart feats when it was nearly impossible to do so, with only one other album achieving a No. 1 debut over the ensuing ten years: Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life, in 1976. It wasn’t until after 1991 that it became a lot easier to not only début at the top, but even get a No. 1 album, when Billboard adopted point-of-sale, piece-count tracking technology to feed its charts.
The irony for Elton is that, except for The Lion King Soundtrack in 1994, the British superstar hasn’t had a No. 1 album—whether it debuted there or not—since Rock Of The Westies. This is not for lack of trying; he’s released nearly 40 studio, compilation, live or soundtrack albums since 1975, with only The Lion King Soundtrack rising any higher than No. 3 on the Billboard 200.
The Lockdown Sessions, released Friday (October 22), is his best chance to better that number in decades!
Lockdown is another album of collaborations for Sir Elton, who has recorded countless pairings over the years; except this set is likely the highest-profile group of collabos in his long, storied career. The number of contemporary and legacy A-listers on Lockdown reads like a Who’s Who in 20th and 21st century popular music.
And not only that, but the songs are all good. No, scratch that…they’re actually great! It took only two listens for yours truly to realize that looping this album on repeat for hours on end would not be out of the realm of possibility. And while The Lockdown Sessions—16 songs that play for 65 minutes—is a mix of Elton originals plus tunes by other artists for whom Elton likened himself to being a session musician, it is still an Elton album through and through.
The proceedings begin with Elton’s recent No. 1 hit (in England; his eighth there) and top-30 Hot 100 single stateside, “Cold Heart,” the duet with Dua Lipa that is itself a tribute to three past EJ hits: the 1983 top-30 song “Kiss The Bride,” the under-appreciated “Sacrifice” (from 1990), and the timeless 1972 classic “Rocket Man.” If someone had told you in, say, 2000 that it would be 21 years before Elton reached the top 40 in America again, how many people would’ve guessed it’d be a mash-up of these three unlikeliest of medley companions, sung with an artist who wasn’t alive when either song was originally recorded.
Speaking of youth, Elton makes no bones about his affinity for it. And the next track demonstrates his unwavering support for artists essentially half his age, or at least it shows his willingness to work with them, regardless of genre.
The stellar second track “Always Love You” is a collabo with millennial rappers Young Thug, 30, and Nicki Minaj, 38, neither of whom need an introduction and both of whom contribute respectable verses to this haunting, piano-driven, trap-beat ballad. The verses are respectable in that they stay true to each rapper’s styles, cadences and, dare I say “love” languages. It’s one of two explicit tracks that earn the uncensored version of Lockdown its parental advisory sticker. Fittingly, Elton’s age-honed huskier voice is auto-tuned here, in keeping with the hip-pop song’s 21st century production vibe.
The R&B duo Surfaces provides a rap/sung vocal on the short soulful bop “Learn To Fly,” a low-key, keyboard driven song that captures a vibe reminiscent of early Stevie Wonder – both musically and vocally, with Elton’s huskily-delivered second verse almost coming across as a rap—again ironically—a la ‘90s-era Scarface.
The most purely sung tune on this album might just be fourth track, “After All,” Elton’s melodic duet with singer Charlie Puth. It has all the chord progressions of an early-1980s pop hit. One could easily see it fitting in with earlier Elton tunes like “Blue Eyes” or “Little Jeanie.” Ironically, it is Puth who delivers a vocal reminiscent of the kind of pop pureness found in old ‘80s hits like Jack Wagner’s “All I Need”(recorded seven years before Puth was born), whereas 74-year-old Elton’s autotuned vocal (and the accompanying musical arrangement) adds the more modern feel to the song.
Up next is another ballad, this one a duet with Rina Sawayama, a 31-year-old Japanese-British singer/songwriter/model whose lone self-titled studio album was released in 2020 during the pandemic. The song “Chosen Family” appears on that album as well. Sawayama’s vocals are reminiscent of Lady Gaga’s, with the song’s unifying message channeling the “Born This Way” singer’s earlier themes as well. How satisfying is it to hear the lyrics “We don’t have to look the same, we’ve been going through the same thing. We don’t have to share genes or a surname…you are my chosen family” in these increasingly divided times?
Next track “The Pink Phantom” is a dreamy, slow-tempo number combining Elton’s piano tinklings with the hypnotic art-pop of Gorillaz mastermind Damon Albarn and (yet another) young rapper 6lack (pronounced “black” for unenlightened fans). How Elton went from hardly having collaborated with any rappers before now to having no less than four on this album alone is a wonder in itself. That one of them is 29-year-old, Baltimore-born, Atlanta-based 6lack is another unlikely (but good) thing altogether.
Up next is Elton’s tribute to the Pet Shop Boys and his take on their classic gay anthem “It’s A Sin.” It’s billed as a collaboration with Years and Years, which is the solo project of 31-year-old British singer Olly Alexander. It may be the least interesting track on the album only because it pales in comparison to the bombast of the PSB original, plus the fact that this newer arrangement doesn’t stray far (enough) from that 1987 classic—creatively speaking—to give it a new spark, at least not until the end when Elton’s piano brings the track to a poignant close.
The most interesting track on Lockdown Sessions might very well be the next one, Miley Cyrus’ take on Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters.” It’s a six-and-a-half minute opus featuring Cyrus’ matured, lower-register vocals that illustrate her growth and depth as an artist. It’s a long way from Hanna Montana, and the pairing with John, along with reigning Producer of the Year Grammy winner WATT, famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, plus Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo and Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, results in a musical masterpiece.
“Matters” is followed by a disco number, “Orbit,” featuring 21st-century British producer SG Lewis. It’s one of the few songs where Elton’s voice is the only one you hear. It’s a great throwback tune, with synth bass and strings, plus a 4/4 beat, that recall late-1970s disco.
That’s quickly followed by a refreshing country-pop duet with Brandi Carlile, “Simple Things, in which Elton’s heavier vocal tone approaches that of the late Johnny Cash. The song is actually more folk or Americana than it is country, but it’s still about as close to country as Elton has ever come.
Which presents yet another irony because the next song, “Beauty In The Bones,” is a duet with history-making country artist Jimmie Allen, who three years ago became the first Black singer to send his debut single (“Best Shot”) to No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart. “Bones,” however, strays far from the country genre, with a nod to techno dance-pop instead. You’re more likely to see Allen showing his nifty moves to this one on the current season of “Dancing With The Stars” than you are to find it riding the country charts, but then Elton has a way of making artists explore different sides of themselves, especially on this album.
Elton’s piano duet with Lil Nas X on “One Of Me,” which was first introduced on the rapper’s Montero album in September, is the 12th track on Lockdown Sessions. The darkly melodic “Me” is the second of two explicit-lyric numbers and the third song on this set to feature a rapper, which is probably two more than all other Elton John albums combined.
In fact, including Lil Nas X, Young Thug and 6lack, Elton has three Black male rappers featured on Lockdown, which, even if you exclude LNX himself, is two more than the “Old Town Road” rapper—who like Elton is openly gay—was able to secure for Montero. In no way was Elton trying to upstage LNX with this development, but the irony further highlights a sad double-standard regarding homosexuality and race, where it seems LGBTQ ally support is abundant as long as its beneficiary isn’t a gay rapper or Black man.
Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder duets with Elton on the next song, “E-Ticket,” which is the most rollicking rock tune on these Sessions. It’s an energetic, piano- and guitar-driven rocker that Elton says was one of two songs he wrote for Vedder at the latter’s request, which begs two questions: what was the other tune and where can we find it?
It’s already been noted that Elton’s voice has grown deeper and heavier with age, and he uses that to his advantage on the churchy duet with fellow icon Stevie Wonder, “Finish Line,” an anthemic piece where we get to hear the latter’s harmonica solo bless a pop tune once more. The other beauty here is that Elton sounds like a natural fit for the song’s gospel arrangement, which also includes contributions from Kanye West’s Sunday Service Choir. Plus it’s nice to see to see the two old friends reunite yet again after they topped the pop chart 36 years ago on Dionne Warwick’s “That’s What Friends Are For.”
The penultimate Sessions tune is the Stevie Nicks collabo, “Stolen Car,” a song whose piano intro instantly evokes memories of Elton’s first U.S. top-10 hit, “Your Song,” before it morphs into an uptempo romp through rousing (especially the second and final) choruses a la Elton’s 1988 hit “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That.” Also, when did we last heard Nicks sound so good while providing harmony vocals on other people’s songs? She used to do it with regularity on 1970s hits by Kenny Loggins, John Stewart and others. Not since then has it sounded this good…and this natural.
The album’s closer is “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” a posthumously recorded duet with the late Glen Campbell. The song was sadly among the last Campbell recorded and was a nod to his battle with Alzheimer’s. It’s also part of a duets project that Campbell’s “people” are putting together using his last album, to which Elton gladly contributed this effort.
Could Elton John be the only artist capable of pulling off an album containing features by artists as diverse as Young Thug and Stevie Nicks, or Jimmie Allen and Rina Sawayama, without it seeming like a septuagenarian’s bid for late-career relevancy?
Quite possibly, yes.
Elton, who is about as accomplished in music as any solo artist ever was, really doesn’t need to prove himself or gain new fans…he has plenty of old ones and his farewell tour—before it was preempted by the pandemic and various health maladies—was doing very nicely, thank you, and is set to resume soon.
Instead, you get the sense that Sir Elton John genuinely likes his guests and is performing with them almost more for their benefit than his…not that many of them—mostly Rock Hall of Famers and current A-listers themselves—really need that kind of career injection.
And this album, even with its eclectic guest list, doesn’t come across as a scattered hodgepodge of styles or genres. There’s a unifying thread that plays throughout in the form of Elton’s piano. Sure, he may have taken a backseat to some of the artists on the vocal mic, but this is clearly not a vanity project, and Elton—perhaps for the first time in his career—seems content to let the other artists shine…even more than he does.
Bottom line: there isn’t a bad song on The Lockdown Sessions. And, oddly enough, Sir Elton John seems right at home with his new “chosen family.”
If you haven’t heard Lockdown yet, do yourself a favor and give the album a listen, and help make Elton John not only the first artist to ever have an album debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, but also the latest.
DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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