Review: Elton John – Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

REVIEW: Elton John – Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

This may not be his best album (I’m sure most people would consider that to be Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but I’d probably say Blue Moves), but it’s a fucking great and fun album anyway. This is also the first album to ever enter the billboard charts at #1. Before buying this, I think the only song I’d ever heard on the radio was “Someone Saved my Life Tonight,” which is a rather overdramatic ballad and the cheese factor is so high I couldn’t even stand it until I heard in in the context of the entire album. It’s apparently about Elton’s ex-girlfriend whom he didn’t want to marry (“sitting like a princess, perched in her electric chair”), so he turned the gas on in a rather lame suicide attempt/suicidal gesture (not to confused with his suicide attempt during “Elton John week,” where he took a bunch of drugs and tried to drown himself in a pool. Thankfully, fat people float so he didn’t die.)

Where was I? Oh right, I was probably about to talk about my psychotic love of mid-70s concept albums. This is not the only concept album EJ has done, but it conceptually the most fun: it is autobiographical, about EJ and Bernie Taupin (Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, respectively). A great thing about this, and about most of EJ’s 70s albums, is the musical diversity, even within songs and the more complex song structures. The title track starts off with some country-sounding guitar, presumably as a sort of musical motif for Bernie.

The arrangements are fucking great, as are the song structures and melodies. The guitars are still pretty good here, and it’s one of his more guitar-oriented albums, though they are not as great as on GBYBR (nothing else ever came close to “Funeral for a Friend,” in my opinion). Some of the piano parts are good, but the album is mostly carried along by the guitars and vocals.

There is not a bad song on this album, and that’s why I rate this very highly (and possibly higher than GBYBR or Blue Moves). I eventually grew to like “Someone saved my life tonight,” probably because I’d developed a greater tolerance to EJ-cheesiness. Some of the lyrics about butterflies and the backing vocals are still facepalm-inducing; but on the other hand, if you just accept all this, it’s sort of impressive; a tour de force of cheese and melodrama.

“Better off Dead” is one of the greatest things I’ve ever heard in my life, and certainly one of EJ’s best songs. And it’s in 12/8 time. The drums sound a bit weird, but I feel like they are probably supposed to, a bit echo-y, which sort of mirrors the piano part.

“We all fall in love sometimes” somehow reminds me a bit of “I’ve seen that movie too” on GBYBR, not musically so much as the tone of it. It has a very theatrical and sad feel to it. I think this was around the time when EJ was saying in interviews that he thought he needed to write songs that were harder to sing, and there is certainly a lot of vocal range displayed here. His voice was awfully pretty in those days.

This then goes seamlessly into “Curtains,” which is also one of the prettiest damned things I’ve ever heard. I’ve read people praising Nigel’s drums in this very highly, and it took me some time to appreciate that, but the drums are also good in this. The deluxe version (40th anniversary) comes with a live CD of the first time anything from this album was played, and they played the entire album in its entirely, from start to finish. I cried when I heard the live version of “Curtains.” It may be that I was drunk and mentally ill, or it may really be that pretty. It is awfully pretty. The studio version sounds a bit lacking in comparison.

I have seven copies of this album: 1 regular CD, 1 deluxe version CD, 2 regular vinyl copies, 1 red vinyl copy, 1 picture disc, and a cassette. It saddens me very much that GBYBR got a “super deluxe” box set with a bunch of discs, a book, and a DVD, and this didn’t. It also has fucking great album cover illustrated by Alan Aldridge.

Bonus tracks: I fucking love EJ’s cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and it’s nice that “House of Cards” was included. I’m not fond of “Philadelphia Freedom” or “One day at a time.” As for the bonus disc extra songs, I could have lived without another live version of “Pinball Wizard” and “Saturday Night’s alright for fighting,” but I won’t complain too much about that. It’s just that bonus tracks that are unrelated to the album, since it is a concept album, fucks up the feel of the whole thing, and “Curtains” is a perfect closing track. It fucks things up to have anything after that.

Anyway, this is clearly a fucking fantastic album, or that word wouldn’t be included in the album title.

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