Recorded a few months before the rising star first visited America, Elton John’s second album of 1970 is nevertheless his most Americana-obsessed. It’s his and Bernie Taupin’s far-removed fantasy of the Ole West, full of swaggering cowboys, burning missions, and guns, guns, guns. The piano-pounding gospel of Elton John‘s churchiest cuts merges with C&W’s weepy slide guitars, and Paul Buchmaster’s orchestrations swap that album’s sturm und drang for the pastoral lyricism of Aaron Copland. This is Elton posing as a country bumpkin.
But when he and Bernie do their version of Dylan and the Band, it’s presented with the operatic drama of the Shangri-Las, and it’s that duality that sets them apart from far more rootsy North American folkies. Like the album before it, nearly every cut here features a maple-thick melody, and the singing gets even better: Listen closely to the way he gently floats over that harp in his swooning “Come Down in Time” and you can hear years spent closely studying American soul stars like the Isley Brothers while playing in their English backing bands. Producer Gus Dudgeon’s ornate sonics situate Elton as a serious artiste and the lyrics skew country, but behind that, the guy is pure R&B: There’s no way an ordinary Brit rocker could pull off the falsetto flutters and sighs of “Where to Now St. Peter?,” much less write them.