Elton John was one of many vintage rockers who got swept up in the ’90s technology revolution, sprinkling songs with drum loops and techno flourishes in an effort to remain contemporary, but on his latest LP he reached back to the classic songwriting style of the ’70s.
For Songs From the West Coast, “we wanted to do a very simple album — piano, bass, drums, guitar, a little bit of organ and some orchestra,” he told VH1’s Rebecca Rankin. “I think because of technology I’ve been diverted musically on the last few albums, trying to do a dance track or a techno track. That’s not what I do best.”
In retrospect, John said he was blinded by the allure of technology. Instead of making life easier and more exciting, it left him feeling scattered and bogged down.
“Technology slows things down,” he said. “I don’t even have a mobile phone. I mean, you go into a department store and it takes like 15 minutes to get your purchase. And by the time you get your credit card into the computer [an inordinate amount of time has elapsed]. So we tried to stay away from that on this album. We just used musical skills and recorded on analog tape because that makes the voice and instruments sound warmer. I love technology when I can use it to my advantage, but in the studio I don’t think it helps anybody.”
Songs From the West Coast is John’s most intimate record in years, filled with yearning, organic vocals, delicate keyboards and evocative lyrics from the longtime writing partner Bernie Taupin. The opening cut, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” scampers to a buoyant piano line and features show tune-style vocals and choral background vocals. “Look Ma, No Hands” layers twangy guitar over jaunty keys, and the first single, “I Want Love,” couples John’s heart-on-sleeve playing with a melancholy beat and confessional lyrics: “I want love, but it’s impossible/ A man like me, so irresponsible/ A man like me is dead in places.”
As for the song’s video, a single tracking shot of actor Robert Downey Jr. walking around a Los Angeles house while lip-synching John’s words, John said, “I don’t think an artist has to be in a video. On this one it worked perfect. I mean, I got to be on holiday while Robert was doing the video.”
Many other tracks on the disc are equally pointed, but perhaps the most moving is the somber “American Triangle,” a song about Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was beaten to death in 1998. The incident was profoundly troublesome to John, who dedicated Songs From the West Coast to Shepard.
“When Matthew was murdered, I was shocked and outraged, and I couldn’t believe there was someone who could do that,” John recalled. “I went to Wyoming and met Matthew’s parents, and I did a concert at the university and set up a scholarship in Matthew’s name and fund-raisers for anti-hate groups. I wanted to do something, you know? So I wanted desperately to write something about it, and it turned out really well. It was the first song we wrote on the album.”
John is no stranger to sensitivity, but some might see such sentiment as contrasting somewhat with his ringing endorsement of controversial rapper Eminem, with whom John performed “Stan” at last year’s Grammy Awards. Not only does John continue to praise the foul-mouthed superstar, he condemns the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which vehemently protested Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP (2000).
“I think they are a bunch of a–holes, sorry guys,” John said. “I wouldn’t have [worked with him] if he was homophobic, and if he was he wouldn’t have asked me.”
GLAAD Entertainment Media Director Scott Seomin expressed disappointment with John’s views: “I think blatant name calling is just childish and sad. We are simply asking for consideration of our point of view. I don’t believe for one minute that Elton John considered the impact Eminem’s lyrics had on kids in junior high and high schools across the country.”
Although Eminem doesn’t make an appearance, several guest stars pop up on Songs From the West Coast. Rufus Wainwright contributes background vocals on “American Triangle,” Stevie Wonder plays Clavinet and harmonica on “Dark Diamond,” and Billy Preston plays B3 organ on “I Want Love,” “The Wasteland” and “Love Her Like Me.” But John said he was most inspired by singer/songwriter Ryan Adams (see “Ryan Adams Mines Gold At Atlanta Tour Opener” ), who doesn’t appear on the record but who brought John onstage during his concert in New York on Wednesday.
“The first thank you on my album says, ’Thank you to Ryan Adams for making me do better’ ’cause his album Heartbreaker last year inspired me,” John said. “He’s just a rough diamond — this 25-year-old bohemian, sharp, witty and brilliant songwriter. I also like Macy Gray and Mary J. Blige. These people are very inspiring to me. They are young, very talented, and they give me a kick of new life. I’ve made 40 albums. It’s nice to listen to new things.”