Elton’s fourth international album breaks significantly from its predecessors in two crucial ways: Arranger Paul Buckmaster and his massive orchestration of the last three albums are gone, replaced by Elton’s far-leaner touring band, which for the first time plays throughout. This means symphonic balladry no longer largely defines Elton’s universe, and it opens up space that starts getting filled in earthier and more diverse ways. Virtuoso jazz-fusion violinist Jean-Luc Ponty solos on “Mellow” and “Amy,” but elsewhere strings are only implied — although you might swear you still hear them, particularly on “Rocket Man,” thanks to the sustained notes of guitarist Davey Johnstone, ARP synth player David Hentschel, and the band’s various ooohs and ahhhs.
The barrelhouse piano that punctuates the rollicking opening title cut shifts Elton’s R&B background to the foreground. Most of Bernie’s lyrics similarly grow more far more direct: Compare the metaphysics of “Levon” released only six months previous with the candidly sexy “Mellow.” Elton’s piano still rules, but there’s a rock ensemble foundation to most cuts that wasn’t there before, and the results are both looser and more rhythmic. Even the gospel that previously suggested fire and brimstone gets more uplifting in “Salvation.” Generating two Top 10 hits, his first since “Your Song,” Honky Château became Elton’s earliest chart-topping album, and began his transformation from dark pop troubadour to rainbow-hued rock superstar.