The singer finds the balance between camp pop-rock and gushing ballads.
Chris Roberts 2010-09-01
The fifth Elton album, and the first since the debut Empty Sky not to be drowned in strings, 72’s Honky Château stands up as one of his most eclectic, durable collections. Best-known for the hits Rocket Man and Honky Cat, it witnesses the singer finding the balance between camp pop-rock and gushing ballads which would subsequently serve his career so well. It was also the first on which his finest touring band was allowed to gel in the studio, and session musicians weren’t to the foreground.
Named after Château d’Herouville in France, where Elton was to record his next two albums (and which subsequently hosted Pink Floyd, T.Rex, David Bowie and Iggy Pop), it has a warm, relaxed feel which complements both the sincere and the ironic songs. Rocket Man somehow slots into both categories. A curious classic, clearly indebted to Bowie’s Space Oddity, its melodic power and sadness are undeniable, but its lyrics get in a right old tangle. Chief among many clumsy clunkers has to be: "Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids / and there’s no-one there to raise them if you did."
Honky Cat is a flippant piano boogie in the style of Dr. John, but there are darker, deeper shades to come, with Bernie Taupin minimising the private jokes. I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself is a satire of teenage angst, but hits a few nerves on its way. Susie (Dramas) is another song of infatuation which beneath its honky-tonk nuances locates grit. Salvation is white gospel, taking a mild dig at religion, while Slave sees Taupin revisiting his Americana obsessions and Amy is Elton mimicking Mick Jagger.
The outstanding Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters is a textbook showcase of the writing pair’s talent: on paper, it’s maudlin and hymn-like. In reality, it works. Only Elton John could follow this with a silly, doo-wop finale, Hercules, which the most ardent fan couldn’t defend. No matter: a number one in the US and number two in the UK, Honky Château was where John laid down solid foundations.