A new Elton album that sounds like an old Elton album is by now ancient news: The guy has been releasing implicitly nostalgic, explicitly self-referential discs for a dozen years. And although this is yet another installment in that series, The Diving Board deviates both from its relatively recent predecessors and his golden era output in ways both emotional and musical.
As its artwork and song titles like “My Quicksand” suggest, this is Elton at his most serious, like the world-weary elements of Blue Moves without comic relief, or The Big Picture without synths. Continuing the T Bone Burnett alliance that began with 2010′s The Union, Elton generates beaucoup ballads here but few pop tunes: His keyboard melodies are consistently far more finessed than what he’s singing. His voice is at its most ragged, but his classical piano work has rarely been better, and there’s little to distract from those facts. Soul star Raphael Saadiq plays bass on some cuts, but you wouldn’t know it without the credits, which also include Burnett regulars Jay Bellerose and Doyle Bramhall II, and veteran Motown percussionist Jack Ashford.
Although there are relatively simple declarations like “Can’t Stay Alone Tonight,” Bernie Taupin elsewhere reverts to wordy, allegorical fantasias, and so it’s difficult to fathom if “Oscar Wilde Gets Out” is about the writer, or criminal injustice in general. Despite its skeletal sound, this is not at all a relaxed album. It’s not always pleasant to hear the pair strain, but their effort is admirable: What superstars of their vintage and astronomical success try this hard?