A Single Man. Never seems to be an album that appears in many people top 10's...though considering the competition it's not hard to see why. So putting aside the competitive aspect and looking at it as a standalone piece, then it certainly has its merits. Elton's 'new' voice, or in truth Elton just putting into practice what Thom Bell had shown him how do a few months earlier is the first marker that's put down. A new found depth that strikes a perfect balance with the light side. Elton's piano playing is also to the forefront here, right from the off in Shine On Through. The Thom Bell edition of the song on its own is fine...but when this version is presented to us we can see why Elton has the best brought out of him by the people around him. The Autumn 1977 version has a saccharine orchestral arrangement, as if a tonne of sugar was dumped in and candy floss came out on disc. Whereas when Paul Buckmaster gets a hold of it, the result is devastating. The devastation hits right home when the drums kick in and the oboe harmonizes Elton's vocal. All this after the strings with a harder edge than before begin the buildup.
It Ain't Gonna Be Easy has the main protagonists on the album showcasing their talents...Ray Cooper's vibes like audio bubbles in the background playing off Buckminster’s arrangement that has attitude and changes that switch from dark to light in a turn of his baton. Tim Renwick's bluesy guitar breaks are Pink Floydish...a gig he done later of course. Steve Holly's drums are never messy on this one, just a full backbeat with fills as and when necessary. Part Time Love is the single material that Elton could write all day...but where would be the challenge in that. Gary Osborne wrote this one with more than a hint it was from experience. The hook of this track is undoubtedly Davey Johnstone weaving in and out as only he can. Georgia possibly sounds like it could have been on Tumbleweed Connection in another life. Elton's vocal goes slightly into 'down south' territory here, which can be forgiven as the subject matter requires it. The beautiful mix of pedal steel and Leslie guitar just takes you to the heartland of the song...which in turn takes us the south lands. Return To Paradise has Elton's vocal with a soft focus...the Fender Rhodes plays along with equal softness.
Madness then counterpoints what has gone before with Elton singing about a thorny subject. The thunderous fills from Ray Cooper on the timpani are magnificent; they don't build into a crescendo because they already started that way. The sudden change in pace is again thrust upon us as Reverie gives us time to contemplate the tremendous climax to the album that is on the horizon. When Elton sits down at the piano to compose an instrumental, the journey he takes only he knows the route. No road map of a lyric, just his thought processes on their own. The destination then becomes all apparent when the deed is done. However when he wrote Song For Guy he couldn't have imagined that the original image in his head had become prophetic. Almost immediately. Elton fills on the various synths creates a soundscape. The solid walls of sound had given way to swirling waves of sound washing over us. Sometimes to enjoy the highs we have to endure the lows. In a strange twist of that concept we can the experience the high of Elton's completed piece from the low of the songs premise. And people wonder why Elton is so good...as with the case with a lot of Elton albums the best tracks sometimes end up as b-sides while their lesser brothers and sisters end up as the chosen few.
Tinderbox in 2006 is Bernie's take on the 1977/78 situation. I Cry At Night is his take on the same situation from a contemporary point of view. The narrative is the same in both...we conquered the world and now we don't want it. The tank is dry and the fumes are used up. The sudden stop may not have physically hit a brick wall, but the emotional impact is the same. Time to retreat and regroup. Elton's vocal switches from the new deeper side to the original incarnation to reflect the lyrics with the emotion he was only too well aware of. His piano when it's on its own and playing a melody like this is a joy. If anyone was in any doubt at this stage to Bernie's well structured thoughts on the industry that had made him he had helped make even better then Ego gives it to us in spades. Spades from a dump truck, not hand held ones either. Bernie had seen them, been with them without possibly ever wanting to be them. But the environment around him had turned him that way. If they were arm lengths before, they were now the distance across the border from Mexico to the orange case. When Elton sings about himself and his colleagues in the business there could have been a danger to fall into parody. Self or otherwise. But the right balance is struck; the self knowing of Elton is evened out with the caustic lyric.
Lovesick certainly deserved the other flipside billing than the one it got. Again Buckmaster's hands are all over this one. The heavy bass sound of the strings are bang on the beat. The delicate use of the woodwinds in tandem with Tim's raunchy guitar on the outro flicker around each other. Overall the album may not reach the dizzy heights of what went before or was to come. Merely it was a repositioning for Elton to restart his recording career with had come out of hiatus as quick as it went into it. The production is clean and bright, his voice and piano are the starting points and everything else is built around it. The songwriting mightn't pull up too many trees in the general scheme of things, but taken in context then it has its place. Quite where Big Dipper or Flintstone Boy fit into all this, that's anybody’s guess