Since his prolific early-‘70s heyday, Elton John’s albums have tended to serve more as pleasant reminders of what he was once capable of rather than vital or even compelling artistic statements. Save a few singles here and there, John’s creative well essentially ran dry following 1975’s Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy, one of the few albums in his catalog that stands more for its overall cohesion than singles. Not surprisingly, that album also served as the last truly great pairing of John and long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin. It’s little wonder then that nearly a decade ago the pair attempted to recapture that album’s glory with the self-referential The Captain & the Kid, itself a reference to Captain Fantastic’s title track.

In the intervening years, however, John and company seem to have come to terms with the fact that the glory days of his early years and astronomical rise to the top of the charts are long gone and any attempt to revive them will likely come off as little more than sad retreads. To avoid this, later period Elton John albums have seen a diverse roster of collaborators and musical ideas that, while far from revelatory, show the flamboyant pianist still more than capable of crafting a set of competent, if not entirely memorable, songs.

With his latest, Wonderful Crazy Night, John again teams with lyricist Taupin and enlists the help of his touring band (including long-time collaborators Nigel Olsson and Davey Johnstone) to create something of a modern take on his commercial peak. Lacking any truly memorable hooks or potential singles, Wonderful Crazy Night instead plays more like a collection of the more off-beat album tracks that surrounded the singles on Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player and Madman Across the Water. “I’ve Got 2 Wings” in particular carries with it an updated feel of the former’s “High Flying Bird,” itself an overlooked gem that found its roots in an unapologetic love of American roots music and borderline saccharine balladry.

Since Tumbleweed Connection’s full-on embrace of the form, John has toyed with the sounds of Americana. Now some 30 albums in, he’s still doing the same – perhaps even more explicitly than before – with the genre’s patron saint, T-Bone Burnett, once again sidling into the producer’s chair. Returning for his third stint, Burnett works to coax a series of performances more reminiscent of John’s earlier works, songs that rely more on melodic subtlety than histrionic bombast and over-the-top camp.

In this, Burnett serves as a contemporary Gus Dudgeon, John’s long-time producer and collaborator during his meteoric ‘70s rise to chart dominance. With someone there to help bring out the best elements of the pianist and temper the more staid approach many former pop stars tend to take in the twilight of their career, John manages an album of songs shot through with a certain mature sense of vitality and fun, something lacking on his previous several efforts.

Sounding relaxed, confident on the keys and in fine voice, here John plays to his contemporary strengths. Always an exceptional pianist – something far too often overlooked in favor of his more cringe-worthy outfits and diva-like behavior – John shows himself to still be one of the most deftly complex pop pianists, delivering deceptively intricate lines behind pleasantly unadorned vocal melodies. The opening, title track features a strutting, syncopated piano line that recalls his boogie-woogie past as Bluesology pianist Reginald Dwight cast in an adult contemporary context. Rather than sounding like an attempt to recapture his commercial peak, “Wonderful Crazy Night” finds John acting and playing his age with a subtle sophistication and quiet confidence reminiscent of fellow pop iconoclast Elvis Costello’s latter day efforts.

While nothing here is single-worthy or destined to become a classic or fan favorite, it’s still refreshing to hear John enjoying himself some 40-plus years on. By loosening up and allowing a sense of fun and lack of self-seriousness to return to the music, Wonderful Crazy Night finds the former Rocket Man delivering a set that feels like an Elton John record. Long-time fans will find much to like in tracks like “In The Name Of You” and “A Good Heart,” songs that evoke the feel of John’s best work. The unconverted, however, are encouraged to go back to the start, looking beyond the obvious hits, to see what has made Elton John such an enduring, iconic figure in popular music.

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