Having realized at the dawning of the 21st century that he’d become famous for just about everything but his recent resolutely genteel pop, film and theater music, the mega-star has an epiphany: Why not make an old-fashioned Elton John album again? So, inspired by Ryan Adams’s Heartbreaker, he records on analog tape and does without the usual vocal processing and synths. Instead, he enlists Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard as producer, and brings back both string arranger Paul Buckmaster and drummer Nigel Olsson.
The result ended Elton’s record of having at least one single in the Top 100 for the last 31 years, but it marked the start of his artistic renaissance. Songs from the West Coast isn’t a perfect album; in places it’s almost too sincere. But when Bernie moves in the opposite direction, watch out: Elton sings “I Want Love” in a voice that’s angry and burnt, and the jaded result is like John Lennon’s “Imagine,” but in reverse, as if it’s the testimony of a man so damaged by life that he’s lost the will or capacity to imagine love that’s actually loving.