Elton John’s first studio album of the 21st Century, Songs From The West Coast, arrived on 1 October 2001. It came after his longest-ever gap between regular releases, four years on from The Big Picture. But the English knight had hardly been dragging his heels.
Listen to the expanded edition of Songs From The West Coast right now.
During that time, John had recorded two musical score albums, for the stage show Aida and the soundtrack album Elton John And Tim Rice’s Aida, then two film soundtracks, for The Muse and The Road To El Dorado. If that workload alone would have filled a decade for lesser artists, he didn’t stop there: Elton’s Madison Square Garden concert of October 2000 broke the record for the most rapidly-produced live album, when it came out just over three weeks later as One Night Only.
But now it was, so to speak, back to the day job – and, many felt, to the very best aspects of the star’s signature piano-vocal sound. Songs From The West Coast was recorded, on analogue tape, over a period of seven months at London’s Townhouse Studios and no fewer than five recording facilities in Los Angeles, prompting the album’s title. The result was a raft of gold and platinum certifications, Top 10 hits on both the UK pop and US adult contemporary charts, and three Grammy nominations.
“I’ll do my best, Sir Elton”
Drummer Nigel Olsson returned to the fold for the album, which featured fellow long-servers Davey Johnstone on guitar and arranger Paul Buckmaster. The record had other weighty cameos, with backing vocalists including Gary Barlow, Rufus Wainwright and Tata Vega, Hammond B3 by the formidable Billy Preston and even an appearance, playing clavinet and harmonica on ‘Dark Diamond’, by Stevie Wonder.
Production, this time, was by Patrick Leonard, the Michigan-born musician who had made his name in a long association with Madonna. His other credits to this point included Bryan Ferry, Bon Jovi, Fleetwood Mac, Carly Simon and dozens more; he had produced ‘Someday Out Of The Blue’ for The Road To El Dorado and co-written the song with Elton, in a rare departure from the latter’s unbreakable partnership with Bernie Taupin.
But the lyricist was well and truly ensconced for the new project, which featured 12 new John/Taupin compositions and a lead single with some of Bernie’s finest, and most searingly self-analytical, words. ‘I Want Love’, released a week before the album, on 24 September, was a forcefully confessional narrative, with such memorable couplets as “A man like me is dead in places/Other men feel liberated”.
The song became a substantial success on the UK pop chart, reaching No 9, and on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary listing, at No.6. It was propelled by a striking video starring actor Robert Downey, Jr, who lip-synched the words, and directed by English filmmaker Sam Taylor-Wood. ‘I Want Love’ has continued to reverberate, being covered by country hero Chris Stapleton (at both John and Taupin’s request) for 2018’s all-star Restoration: Reimagining The Songs Of Elton John And Bernie Taupin. It then featured in a family scene from Elton’s childhood as depicted in the 2019 film Rocketman.
“You can only be like yourself”
“I got a phone call from Elton John, which was one of the strangest phone calls you’re gonna get if you ever get that phone call,” Stapleton explained to Amazon Music. “Not strange, wonderfully strange. In the last few years of surreal moments, that was a surreal one for sure. He wanted us to do this particular song. What are you going to say if Elton John calls you up and asks you do to something like other than, ‘Yes, absolutely,’ and, ‘I’ll do my best, Sir Elton.’”
Ever the avid record fan and a generous champion of emerging artists, John told VH1: “In recent years I’ve been too influenced by what I’ve been hearing. I’ve been trying to do an ambient track, or a dance track, and that’s not really what I do best.
“I’m a musician, I’m allowed to experiment. I’m not competing against myself, I’m competing against the influence of so many other people and trying to be like so many other people I can’t be. You can only be like yourself.”
The album’s second single, ‘This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore’, continued the celebrity video theme, with the appearance of Justin Timberlake as the younger Elton, to a Taupin lyric about advancing years. The song became another Top 10 Adult Contemporary hit in the States and was followed by Song From The West Coast’s final single, ‘Original Sin’, a Top 20 entry on that chart.
“I’m singing better than ever”
Elton’s work is almost universally imbued with Americana flavours, but they were especially evident throughout Songs From The West Coast, from the opening ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ onwards. Stevie Wonder’s appearance on ‘Dark Diamond’ revived memories of his vivid contribution to ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues’, some 18 years earlier. Another notable highlight was ‘American Triangle’, written about the brutal murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in 1998. The album was dedicated to his memory, and that of Davey Johnstone’s late son Oliver.
Entertainment Weekly said that Songs From The West Coast was John’s “most nuanced, openhearted and headlong collection in years”. Robert Hilburn in the Los Angeles Times was even more expansive: “No album in years has captured the intimacy and heart of [John and Taupin’s] endearing early work like this one.”
Songs From The West Coast debuted at No.2 in the UK and went on to double-platinum status there. It went platinum in Italy and gold in many other countries, and was nominated as Best Pop Album at the Grammys, where ‘I Want Love’ was shortlisted for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance (as was ‘Original Sin’, the following year).
“I don’t think I could have made a better album at this stage in my life,” Elton told VH1. “When Bernie and I talked about doing it last year, we wanted to do a much more simple album – piano, bass, drums, guitar, a little bit of organ and some orchestra. It’s the same line-up as all the early albums. Because of technology, I’ve been diverted musically on the last few albums. There hasn’t been a flow from track to track. On this album, there is. It starts with piano and finishes with piano.
“A lot of my vocals on this album don’t have any echo on them. I’m used to having a lot. I was kind of shaky at first, like, ‘Where’s the echo?’ They said, ‘You don’t need it.’ I don’t. I’m singing better than ever. Technology slows things down, [especially] in the studio. We tried to stay away from that on this album. We used just our musical skills.”
Songs From The West Coast can be bought here.