Okkervil River's Will Sheff: Five Essential Elton John Songs
Okkervil River's Will Sheff (photo courtesy of ATO Records, PR)
[May 2018 update: Will Sheff and his Okkervil River bandmates release a new album, called In the Rainbow Rain, and are on the road. So is Sheff's beloved Elton John, embarking on his final, 300-date Goodbye Yellow Brick Road tour which begins on September 8 in Allentown, Pennsylvania.]
Will Sheff candidly excavates self-doubt, personal epiphanies, and the ache of grief on the most recent Okkervil River album, Away. Relying on a shifting lineup of musicians since the departure of his bandmates, Sheff attenuates the bluster of rock 'n' roll for a more contemplative journey, leaning on jazz, folk and even classical flourishes. There's a gust of real freedom here: Sheff's songs unfold delicately and hinge, lyrically and otherwise, on moving beyond the beauty and debris of the past.
Curiously, the mighty impact of Away comes into even clearer focus after learning of Sheff's admiration and attention to the music—and unique persona—of Elton John. Whenever FUV reaches out to a musician about writing about a fellow artist's discography for Five Essential Albums and Songs, we're always delighted when there's an intuitive connection, a genuine bridge from person to person. Receiving Sheff's "Five Essential Elton John Songs" was a bit like a Five Essentials Christmas morning—his detailed, erudite, thoughtful assessment of Elton John's music, Bernie Taupin's lyrics, and John's longtime rhythm section of Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray is a revelation.
Okkervil River's Will Sheff: Five Essential Elton John Songs:
"Bennie and the Jets," Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, (1973)
One of the things I’ve come to conclude about Elton John is that he’s not really a deep-cuts artist. There are certain musicians (Bob Marley is the first who springs to mind for me) where if you listen to the biggest songs you get a kind of two-dimensional picture of what’s special about them, and you have to dig a little deeper to get to the heart of what made them so vital. With Elton John, his best songs are actually in many cases the biggest hits, the stuff you can’t get out of a grocery store without bopping to in the cereal aisle. And if you listen to whole LPs of his vinyl, you’ll often find yourself getting impatient for him to bust out those big hit singles, to skip the civil war monologue and make with the radio number.
My first exposure to “Bennie and the Jets” was John doing it as a sing-along with a bunch of Muppets on “The Muppet Show,” and my young mind immediately grasped what was going on; this was essentially a human Muppet, a larger-than-life character made more out of brightly-colored fabric and tinted glass than flesh and blood, singing about similarly colorful characters who seemed to have an edge to them but who also felt friendly. Listening to it as an adult—which is something I do on a weekly basis whether I plan to or not —I would call “Bennie and the Jets” watered-down Bowie were it not for the fact that whatever it is John has added to “Bennie and the Jets” is much more sparkling and delicious than water.
Also of note about this song: John’s wonderful and very odd use of a fake audience makes it feel like the opposite of a live record. He takes a gargantuan pop anthem and manages to smuggle in a weird sense of intimacy, as if the stripped-down trio (it’s just bass, drums and piano!) playing the song are only hearing the stadium in their imaginations. And John takes care to make sure this imaginary stadium is populated with English people, not Americans. How can you tell? They’re not clapping on the backbeat, but on the one and the three.
"Madman Across the Water," Madman Across the Water (1971)
As a songwriter, I’ve spent countless hours trying to reverse-engineer the formula for what makes Elton John’s songs so damn pleasant and satisfying and comforting and what I’ve discovered is that an essential part of the formula involves being Elton John. I guess, to be fair, the formula involves being Elton John and then having that exact specific team behind you. You need the enjoyably pretentious lyrics of Bernie Taupin and you especially need the rhythm section of Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray.
I’ve come to conclude that a big part of the secret to the classic Elton John sound is Olsson and Murray, who rarely do anything very showy but who keep the rhythm section utterly watertight, allowing John’s syncopated piano chords to rhythmically spatter against them like spring rain on a new trampoline. John’s playing is rather busy, but it’s never annoying because Olsson and Murray leave so much room for him and are also obviously always listening very closely to him, alternately laying back and giving him interesting counterpoint when he needs it.
On this song, John’s backing band gets to set aside their usual airbrushed AM radio sheen and just crank out a big epic prog guitar-rock jam and show that they’re as good as anybody doing it. Davey Johnstone’s electric guitar—with all its fun Echoplex delay effects—is just so great here, but what keeps me riveted is John, Olsson and Murray, all listening, listening, cutting loose and laying back, riding every little crest and trough of this giant wave of energy.
"Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters," Honky Château (1972)
Elton John has a disproportionate number of songs where, in the lyrics, he plays the role of this sort of studly country hayseed who moves to the big bad city, gets his eyes rudely opened, and then has to decide whether to stick it out or return to his roots. I’m sure John’s recurring country-bumpkin theme has everything to do with the fact that his lyricist Bernie Taupin grew up on a giant farm estate in Lincolnshire, but John himself grew up in a well-heeled London suburb, and when he sings Taupin’s country-mouse lyrics he brings this double-sided, almost disingenuous quality to them that imparts a sophistication that’s not there on the page.
These songs—like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” or “Country Comforts,” or “My Father’s Gun”—manage to have it both ways: there’s a kind of winking knowingness to them but they also deliver the emotional goods by the truckload. And man oh man is “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” an amazing example of this. Every word out of John’s mouth is quasi-ridiculous (rose trees? never grow? in New York City?), so why does this song give me a giant lump in my throat pretty much every time I hear it? It’s always 3:00 a.m. in this song. It feels like an anthem for a bar at closing time, or the pivotal song in a musical – the one they introduce right before the intermission and reprise at the end to not a dry eye in the house. There is a goofy, outsized melodrama to this song that absolutely works and just knocks you on your ass. Like I said, there’s no formula for how you write a song like this other than you just have to be Elton John.
"Daniel," Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player (1973)
I mostly like this song because I actually have a brother named Daniel who is a Spanish teacher and has spent many nights on flights back and forth from Spain. So every time I put this song on I think about my brother, and then I get a warm feeling, and then John starts singing about “scars that won’t heal” and eyes dying and suddenly I feel guilty for picturing my brother in whatever sorrowful and deflated scenario the lyric is describing, and my guilt mixes with the warm feeling and then gets smoothed over by that corny little keyboard line in the choruses, and I feel this completely weird and jarring mix of emotions that strikes me as just so Elton John, this strange combination of things that shouldn’t work but do, like dipping french fries in your milkshake.
That’s what “Daniel” feels like, this guilty pleasure where the pleasure feels so right that it just toboggans over and completely buries the guilt.
"Levon," Madman Across the Water (1971)
I’m going to let you in on a dirty secret I’ve been dancing around this whole time, and I hope you don’t get mad at me. The secret is this: I actually think Bernie Taupin is kind of a bad lyricist. I want to make it very clear that just because I’m saying Taupin’s lyrics are bad that doesn’t mean I don’t like Taupin’s lyrics, because I actually love them. But I also think they are, from an objective standpoint, kind of bad. Feel free to run me through the wringer in the comments, to say I’m a snot-nosed nobody who never had a Billboard Hot 100 number one hit for x weeks running, whatever. It’s my opinion, and I can’t hear you, and by the time you’re read this piece I’ll have probably forgotten that I wrote it.
What was I saying? Oh yeah, Bernie Taupin’s lyrics. I guess what I mean is that they’re insanely goofy, full of lines like “hunting the horny back toad” or “rolling through the hay like a puppy child” that Elton John then has to sell, that they’re enjambed with syllables and hard to sing, that they’re frequently full of dated sexism that somehow feels ickier than the Stones because you feel like Taupin thought about it harder, that they frequently don’t make any sense, and that above all they’re consistently pretentious. But look—none of this makes any difference, because Bernie Taupin was born to write lyrics for Elton John to sing, and Elton John was born to sing Bernie Taupin’s lyrics. This is what happens when you take John away from Taupin: he writes Starship’s “We Built this City,” whose Wikipedia page has three different subsections detailing all the different outlets that named it the worst song of all time. But when you put Taupin and John together, some weird alchemical reaction happens where it all works and it’s all perfect.
“Levon” is such a great example of this. When you read the song on the page it’s a vintage piece of 1971 treacle, a goofy daydream by some British guy fantasizing about Levon Helm from the Band and sort of letting himself get carried away. But Elton John attaches this great melody to that goofy lyric and sings the hell out of that melody and suddenly it feels like “Levon” is about America itself, about what fathers pass on to their sons, about the broad sweep of the 20th century, about riches and poverty, about death and God and the nature of the soul. Where the hell did all of that come from? It’s a magic trick! Actually, it’s not even a trick— it’s real, honest-to-God magic.
This is what music can add. This is what words can become when you sing them. You put these two guys together and you put these musicians behind them and you put those geniuses behind the mixing board then you watch them turn lead into the purest gold, again and again, hitting the charts so hard and so repeatedly they left scars that won’t heal.
- Will Sheff of Okkervil River