No musician of any caliber would be anywhere without his or her influences. No matter how prolific the artist, someone had to light that initial fire. For Sir Elton John, it was Leon Russell, and, like Eric Clapton did with his idol B.B. King, the two piano men have made a record together and a fantastic one at that. But would you expect any less when they’ve done nothing but write equally phenomenal material for decades? The resulting record, The Union, is a crossing of two aging piano men: John, the one who took the pop reins from The Beatles and dominated the charts in the 1970’s, and Russell, the muse to such pop genius, who reinvented the piano for John in the first place. And while it may seem that the student has become the teacher, it’s clear that Russell still has a lesson or two left in him. Oh yeah, and he brought Neil Young too.
Russell never had anywhere near the same chart success as John in terms of numbers, but what he does have is that same sense of timelessness in his songwriting. It’s the way Russell plays that hits a sweet spot with the listener, showing that true honesty can have a place in popular music without getting lost in the production. Yes, John ultimately took the more boisterous route, but that time has come and gone, and, over the decades since he packed away the sequins, his music has come back to where it began, with Russell.
This is where we find ourselves on The Union. Told with gospel Americana piano-rock cerca 1972, the record is a reflection on a long life lived. As to be expected, John and Russell trade vocals and hammer out the keys with slick blues guitar to boot. A choir flanks them throughout, and the resulting sound is truly cathedral. When it comes to the writing, though, there’s nothing unexpected, as it’s more about the experience of hearing two great piano men than reinventing the wheel. It’s a treat to be able to hear the close relationship between these two players and their music–their individual styles blending seamlessly.
While John’s voice has grown more distinguished with age, Russell’s has become more rugged in the way that only comes after 40 years of banging away at the keys. The combination ends up taking both musicians back to their country ways of the early 1970’s. Blues, gospel, country, and pop are all part of the spectrum on this album. John takes on the ballads with “Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes” and “When Love is Dying”, while Russell opens things with the excellent Americana rock of “If It Wasn’t For Bad”. After this, though, it’s not such a cut-and-dry back-and-forth between songs. “Hey Ahab” has pieces of 1970’s glam rock added to the gospel, with John’s voice grabbing you by the balls as the choral section backs him up. Thinking about it, though, Russell could have taken the lead, and it would have been just as big.
They certainly play off each other’s strengths, but there are moments that make you feel like it’s more about Russell than the mutual exchange. You get that on “Jimmy Rodgers’ Dream”, which is distinctly Americana the way Russell does it with slide guitars and longing lyrics. John’s balladry gets a hand on “There’s No Tomorrow” only to be taken over by Russell’s pristine gospel. For these select moments, it’s obviously Russell’s show with John along for the ride.
I’ll admit that I was surprised by how enjoyable this record is. Not that I thought it was going to be bad, just not this good. As it turns out, The Union brings great additions to both catalogues with several songs suitable for repeating and turning up. This is a record I’ll be going back to for a while.