In less than 10 years, Elton John went from the biggest performer in the world, to struggling to get a hit. He would rebound, but it showed how fickle the music biz was.
After Blue Moves (1976) failed to be another massive hit, although it performed well, but did not top the charts, neither did the best song from the album, “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.”
After touring for the album, Elton announced there wouldn’t be any more live shows. Then there was a two-year gap between new albums, which in those days, was like a decade. Any artist off the charts for two years was left in the dust. Music moved on.
A Single Man was Elton’s first album for his own record company, and the first without producer Gus Dundgeon. Elton and his bass player/engineer, Clive Franks, took over production. Also by this time, Elton has shed most of his original band, guitarist Davey Johnstone appeared on one song on the album, and percussionist Ray Cooper played on a few songs.
And there was one more change: Elton was also not writing with Bernie Taupin, instead, he collaborated with Gary Osborne as lyricist.
Elton was still popular, he just wasn’t Elton John popular like before. A Single Man would still sell a million copies in America, but fans would become more choosey. Overall, A Single Man is a solid album, but it lacks the passion and musical explosiveness of his early 1970s work. Personally, I always liked this album, particularly “Part-Time Love,” but rarely pulled it from the collection to play. The album is sedate and very little of it cries “listen to me!”
Most of the reviews at the time were average at best, generally dismissing the lyrics as bland and the songs as uninspired.
“A Single Man demonstrates just how thin the line really is between disposable radio pop and elevator music, and suggests that for all of Elton John’s public whining about not being taken seriously, the only thing that’s ever mattered to him is that the hits keep coming.” – Rolling Stone
Here’s an overview of Elton’s career. Slow build in the late 1960s, then massive success, tapering off in the mid 1970s. Decreased success until he hit a major valley in 1979.
Pictured above are two albums most fans do not know about. Experimenting, or just didn’t care? If he was tired of success, this was a cure. The Thom Bell Sessions are not horrible, in fact he had a minor hit, but his record company would not release it for two years and even then, only selected songs from the sessions. Victim of Love is best forgotten; a discofied concoction of excess.
Moving to the 1980s. Through the first half of the decade, he slowly rebuilt his success with a number of hit singles, but the albums were uneven. From the mid 1980s until 1992, his output would be some of the worst material he ever recorded, and he admitted it in his autobiography, so addicted to cocaine that he barely remembering making the albums. He got by on live albums and greatest hits collections. The One, released in 1992, was his return to better selling and critically received material. From there, he would achieve great success with The Lion King, his focus and success returned.
A Single Man was a transition project as his career went through a cooling period. Moving on from Bernie and not using his band or Gus Dundgeon were huge changes. Now, Elton was calling all of the shots, and only Clive Franks as his sounding board. Maybe A Single Man turned out well considering the significant changes to the creative process? Elton set the bar very high for each time at bat. Instead of a victim of love, he was a victim of his own success.
“Shine on Through” – 3:45 The albums starts as promising as any Elton John record. Instead of a grand or powerful rocker, this is a ballad of sorts. Midway through the song it turns into a power ballad of sorts. Paul Buckmaster provides the string arrangement.
“Return to Paradise” – 4:15 Elton sounds like Freddie Mercury here. Both had the same manager for awhile. An island groove with gentle breeze. Not bad, not great.
“I Don’t Care” – 4:23 Although this bouncy tune has a chorus that repeats itself to the point of insanity, it is a well-done song. The lyrics lack much originality but the arrangement is what pushes this song above mediocrity, with gospel chorus and disco strings. For me, the songs goes on too long.
“Big Dipper” – 4:04 A showy, bluesy arrangement, with New Orleans style horns. Big dipper, I wonder what that could be about. Another song that is not bad, just not great either.
“It Ain’t Gonna Be Easy” – 8:27 Big production and stylistically, one of Elton’s most passionate songs. This song could have been lifted from the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album of 1973, it is soulful rock, in a grand fashion. Some really fine guitar work by Tim Renwick (Roger Waters, Pink Floyd, David Bowie). One of my favorites from the album.
“Part-Time Love” – 3:16 Easily my favorite track, it has a catchy, distorted guitar (Davey Johnstone), R&B chorus and bouncy, driving piano. Is it one of Elton’s best singles? No, but it is perhaps his best song from this time period.
“Georgia” – 4:50 A southern Gospel number, a choir and just a touch of R&B. Elton had recorded some songs with producer Thom Bell, of the Philly sound, in 1977, but those songs would sit on the self for awhile. This song could have been from Tumbleweed Connection.
“Shooting Star” – 2:44 Fine guitar work and electric piano, a haunting quality about the song. This does not sound like Elton at all. Interesting, take a listen.
“Madness” – 5:53 A very fast-paced song. I immediately searched my memory banks for where I had heard the song before. Disco strings appear in the middle of the song. Fine guitar work by Renwick. The song doesn’t need to be almost six minutes long, it is full of repetition, you get the point very early on.
“Reverie” (John) – 0:53 A very short instrumental, essentially just Elton. It is more a lead-in for “Song for Guy.”
“Song for Guy” (John) – 6:35 A song about Elton’s delivery boy, a young man killed in a traffic accident. Not released as a single in America, but the song had great success elsewhere. Mostly an instrumental, it does not sound like anything Elton has ever recorded. One of Elton’s most thoughtful musical pieces. A drum machine and synthesizers, you think of Vangelis and Chariots of Fire.
CD Bonus Songs (added when the CD version was release, given additional space)
“Ego” (John, Bernie Taupin) – 4:00 This could easily have been on this or one of his other albums. Although it would be one of their most average songs.
“Flinstone Boy” (John) – 4:13 Completely written by Elton, not sure what the point of the song. Trite lyrics, repetitive musical form.
“I Cry at Night” (John, Taupin) – 3:16 Elton accompanying himself on piano and multi-tracking his vocals. Interesting, but inconsequential song.
“Lovesick” (John, Taupin) – 3:59 The most impressive of the bonus cuts. Uptempo song, string arrangement, disco bass line, gritty guitar.
“Strangers” (John, Osborne) – 4:46 Slow, soulful song, with a country guitar solo. This song would have made the album had their been space. Not a bad track.
This is certainly a better album than many of his 1980s releases, when Elton would give up on the Billboard Hot 100 and focus on the Adult Contemporary Chart. A Single Man is by no means a classic, it has filler and the best songs are not quite up to the standard he set earlier in the decade. Even with that, if you are an Elton John fan, this is an album that may not be on your radar that should.
In the future, I will take a look at 21 at 33, Too Low For Zero, The Fox and Jump Up! which are his early 1980s albums.