Where Tumbleweed Connection imagined vintage Americana from afar, Madman Across the Water, as its title suggests, documents contemporary America first-hand in the wake of Elton and Bernie’s initial US tour with drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray. So although Taupin is up to his usual surrealism in “Levon,” he comes back down to earth for “Tiny Dancer” and “Holiday Inn,” which chronicle life on the proverbial rock ‘n’ roll road. That experience is already showing up in Elton’s vocals, which are now both more relaxed and more dexterous in the wake of his first major stage experience as a solo star.
The gap between the seriousness and introversion of Elton’s albums and his growing reputation as rambunctious entertainer begins getting bridged with “Razor Face,” a howling, Stones-y song so blatantly gay it’s hard to believe that it sailed over most heads in 1971 just as David Bowie started bringing rock out of the closet. (Check out prog-rock kingpin Rick Wakeman wailing on that organ.)
There’s more prog action than ever in Paul Buchmaster’s opulent strings, which anticipate the cello-intensive bombast of early Electric Light Orchestra, particularly on the stormy title track. The tunes do get distinctly less catchy as the album progresses, though, and so for decades Madman was thought too orchestrated for its own good. But in 2000, Almost Famous revived “Tiny Dancer,” which narrowly missed the US Top 40 in 1972, and justly repositioned this surging, swaying tribute to Californian women as one Elton’s most sing-along-able and all-around greatest songs ever. Those same derided strings rightfully rule.