Elton John was 66 years old when he described The Diving Board as “my most adult album.” Released on September 13, 2013, it marked a return to the stripped-down, piano-and-vocal style that made him a star in the first place.
Producer T Bone Burnett was central to that simplification, invited by Elton to oversee the album following his sympathetic treatment of The Union, the star’s 2010 collaboration with hero and mentor Leon Russell. But in contrast to the prodigious fertility of the singer-songwriter’s earlier years, this time Elton’s fans had some waiting to do. The Diving Board was his first all-new solo studio work since 2006’s The Captain And The Kid.
‘The most piano-oriented album of my career’
The initial sessions for the album took place at The Village Studios in Los Angeles early in 2012, and an autumn release was earmarked. But the longer Elton lived with the recordings, the more he knew that they needed something extra. The street date moved to February, and then, at his concert in Perth in November 2012, he announced that The Diving Board had been put back again, to May.
Buying more time, Elton and Bernie Taupin wrote four new songs, recorded at The Village in just two days, a year after the first recording sessions and with the same group of musicians. For only the second time in almost a quarter of a century, that line-up didn’t include any of Elton’s longtime collaborators.
Instead, this time, the cast featured esteemed keyboard player Keefus Ciancia, drummer Jay Bellerose, and other such notables as Raphael Saadiq on bass and guitarist Doyle Bramhall II. There were also several appearances on tambourine by Jack Ashford, veteran percussionist in Motown’s peerless studio crew, The Funk Brothers.
The album even temporarily changed title during its incubation, to Voyeur, the title of another of its tracks. In the new year of 2013, Taupin wrote on his website: “Seeing that we’re in no rush to get this record out there, we just felt the bug to get back in and cut some more material. We’re pretty happy with what we’ve already laid down but there’s always room for improvement. If you’ve got some good songs up your sleeve that can spice up the mix and enhance what’s already there, it would be a shame not to make use of the free time.”
‘This is the album I should be making’
Make use of it they did. By February, Elton was telling friends that The Diving Board was “the most piano-oriented album of my career.” He explained to a small gathering at Village Studios that its musical influences were “everything I love about American music. This is the album I should be making after The Union.”
Finally fixed for a September release, The Diving Board was previewed by two lead songs. “Home Again,” issued in June, was an elegant slow reflection that later added horns, arranged by Darrell Leonard, to Taupin’s wistful look over his shoulder (“We all dream of leaving, but wind up in the end/Spending all our time trying to get back home again”). Two weeks before the album’s release came “Mexican Vacation (Kids In The Candlelight),” its bluesy sway in some contrast to the generally contemplative mood of what was about to follow.
Fans were delighted to hear Elton the pianist reclaiming the nimble brilliance that only amplified the impact of his vocals and Taupin’s lyrics. Such renewed clarity was evident from the very opening seconds of track one, “Oceans Away,” on which John’s keyboards and vocals were entirely unaccompanied. Taupin noted that the song was written “in memory of my father, Captain Robert Taupin, and the Great Generation.” Bernie had grown up on the farm owned by Taupin, Sr, in the Fenlands of Lincolnshire.
The following “Oscar Wilde Gets Out” was tastefully adorned by the cellos of Stjepan Hauser and Luka Sulic. The two halves of Croatian duo 2Cellos, they had impressed Elton so much that he invited them to tour with him in 2011 and beyond, including at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert at Buckingham Palace in June 2012.
“A Town Called Jubilee” had a gospel-style choir arranged by Bill Maxwell, with Ashford playing the same block he had hit for Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’. The same churchy feel adorned “Take This Dirty Water,” while “Can’t Stay Alone Tonight” reminded us of Elton’s aptitude in the country idiom. It joined a list that included the Tumbleweed Connection highlight “Country Comfort” and “Turn The Lights Out When You Leave,” from 2004’s Peachtree Road. The pithy lyrics of “My Quicksand,” meanwhile, were perfectly matched to a delicate treatment by Elton at the Yamaha, with an adroitly jazzy core.
‘Quite an achievement’
The Diving Board entered the UK chart at No.3 and the Billboard 200 at No.4, and was largely greeted with huge warmth by the world’s media. Andy Gill in The Independent made it his album of the week, writing: “The singer has matched Bernie Taupin’s best crop of lyrics for years with his own most emotively apt melodies to produce a collection that both harks back to the intrigues and interests of his earliest recordings, yet manages to break new ground, quite an achievement for an artist in his sixth decade.”
In The Boston Globe, Sarah Rodman admired the way that the album was “putting John’s piano and voice front and centre, offering memorable melodies, and scraping off the production glop to reveal again the musician, the vocalist, the emotional artist still alive under John’s shiny shell of professional fabulousness.”
Buy or stream The Diving Board.