A few years ago, this would be a description of Elton’s career: too low for zero. Not really, but it was close.
I have had people express shock that Elton John suffered a down period in his career. He’s actual had two sizable career valleys, but he’s never been off the radio and he tours like a mad man. So what I do I mean by a career dip?
Beginning in 1976, his albums sold substantially less quantities, less success on radio and fewer positive stories. He was still popular, but not the hot, trendsetter anymore. His singles were now showing up as middle of the road charts. If was dinosaurs like Elton that punk rock railed against, and many of those musicians had to fight to remain relevant with these new waves of younger bands. By 1979, Elton was looking like a has-been, burned out success and excess. He split with his old band and producer, as well as writing with Bernie. He was selling albums because of his past success, less so because of his current music. Starting in 1980, he went back to work, with mixed results. It took him until this album to gain his footing. Bernie was back as well as his old band. He found a quality producer in Chris Thomas.
This was his best selling album for the decade. While it only reached number 23 on Billboard, it stayed on the chart for a year and sold over a million copies. Unlike his other albums that disappeared quickly, fans warned up to this one. His old 1970s band sounded great and Chris Thomas captured a quality sound around tightly arranged songs.
This album is primarily know for the hits, “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues” and “I’m Still Standing.” There is much more to appreciate beyond these two very good songs. This is the first album in a very long time that feels “complete.” Elton always had filler on his albums, knocked-off tunes that filled the requirement for a long-paying album. If he had not released so many albums in a short period of time, he could have tightened up a few of his releases.
This album is focused and energetic, the lyrics are thoughtful and Elton makes more of an effort to broaden his musical style. Too Low For Zero incorporates 1980s rhythms and processed synthesizer sounds more effectively than on his last couple of albums. Most of it works, although he stumbles here and there, but minor complaints. Overall, a much better album than I remember.
Beginning with 21 at 33 in 1980, Elton worked to restart his recording career after a few misfires. There is no doubt the turbulence in his personal life played a big part in the problems as a recording artist. Too much fame, too suddenly? The excesses and detours were there, see the film or read the book. While the rebound in the quality and reception of his records was great, it would be short-lived as he sank again in the second half of the 1980s. That’s another story.
Too Low For Zero at least serves as a milestone, an album that is truly worthy of his name and his effort.
The songs – All songs were written by John/Taupin.
“Cold as Christmas” Surprisingly good song. Thoughtful lyrics and a melody that goes deeper for melodic satisfaction.
“I’m Still Standing” An upbeat, rocker and a number 12 hit. The old band nails it. Notice the use of synthesizers, an effort to blends with younger bands. Johnstone provides a gritty guitar solo.
“Too Low For Zero” Drum machine beats and synthesizers, deliberately 1980s.
“Religion” An upbeat, bouncy song. This would have been a country song if records a couple of years ago, there is a slight country feel to it. Johnstone burns a few guitar solos. A poke at religion, but lightly so.
“I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues” Scored on both the hot 100 at number four and number two in the Adult Contemporary Chart. Johnstone helped write the music. One of Elton’s best songs, it covers a lot of familiar bases.
“Crystal” A very 1980s sounding song, which sounded fresh at the time, but is dated now. Musically, it well-done, very energetic despite the arrangement.
“Kiss the Bride” A rocker, heavy guitars, pounding beat. When he wants to, Elton can rock.
“Whipping Boy” Another high-energy song, lean, very guitar centered, with nice vocals on the chorus. A fun song.
“Saint” Back to the big synthesizer sound, which I think gets in the way of this nice, slow song. There is a nice melody that is drowned out by the arrangement. Hard to listen to this song.
“One More Arrow” A nice acoustic piano opening. A nice vocal performance by Elton. A song with a lot of feeling, bordering on being sentimental, but done in a very classy way. I nice way to end the album.
Bonus tracks – These songs were previously recorded from other sessions. These are oddities, very unlike the songs released on the album, obviously older songs that were in the can but didn’t make the cut.
“Earn While You Learn” This is a very un-Elton type song. I’m not sure how to describe it, very New Wavey in an Old Wave sort of way. This must have been recorded two albums ago judging by the players.
“Dreamboat” Another odd style for Elton, also recorded a couple of years previously.
“The Retreat” A more traditional Elton-sounding song. Good, not great song. Worth a listen.