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Too Low For Zero-- An '80s High Point
on August 8, 2006
The transitional phase Elton John went through in the late '70s and early '80s was over. Too Low For Zero was not only the first record since Blue Moves that's all John/Taupin (except for one of the bonus tracks on this reissue, but I'll get to that in due time), it was also a full reunion with the original Elton John Band! This is the first record since Captain Fantastic in '75 to be recorded, from start to finish, with Davey Johnstone on guitar, Dee Murray on Bass and Nigel Olsson on the skins, and it shows. The title reflects neither the quality nor the chart positions of this fabulous record; it was Elton's best in years. The opener, 'Cold As Christmas,' may be a bit of a lyrical downer about a failing marriage, but it remains an excellent song with clever phrasing; it was quite a pleasure to hear this one again after something like fifteen years. 'I'm Still Standing' follows, an anthem of survival still without peer; the title track, a lament on boredom, misery and insomnia, comes next, with its irresistable beat and addictive chorus- lyrics notwithstanding, it's far from depressing. Next comes 'Religion,' as it so often does (ha-ha), a triple-tale of spiritual conversion in the most mundane of circumstances. While not a work of particular brilliance, it's a catchy little number that holds its own surrounded by the duo's signature hits of the decade. The album's best song comes next, 'I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues.' Featuring a harmonica bit by Stevie Wonder and a co-writer's credit for Davey Johnstone, this song, one of John/Taupin's all-time great love songs, was a hit throughout most of Western Civilisation, as it well warranted. 'Crystal' follows, another clever, catchy hook around a story of a lover lost to a friend, then comes the record's last major hit, 'Kiss The Bride,' a good rocker about falling in love with a stranger as she walks down the asile. I'll tell ya; for songs about unrequited love, no one beats these two. You might even call it their particular specialty: Elton and Bernie have managed to write uncountable songs on this topic, without excessive repetition of the same specific themes or stories (although they will write another song about falling in love with a bride at a wedding, 'I Never Knew Her Name,' on Sleeping With The Past six years hence, the details and the music are sufficiently different that you can't call it self plagarism, exactly). The next song, 'Whipping Boy,' is perhaps a bit perverse; the story of a masochistic relationship with a mean piece of jailbait, it's funny and it has the kind of chorus that can bother you for days. Now, we come to the tracks that close the original album, moving into torch-song territory: 'Saint,' a worshipful love song about an all-too good lover, and 'One More Arrow,' about a dead one. Finally, we come to the reissue extras. 'Earn While You Learn' is a jaunty instrumental that served as the b-side of 'I'm Still Standing,' 'Dreamboat,' a jazzy, countrified number in the tradition of 'Dixie Lily,' and the only non-Taupin lyric on the record- is Gary Osbourne's sole appearance on this record. Last, but far from least, is 'The Retreat,' a lovely ballad reflecting Taupin's continuing Americana fixation. It's a poetic tale of the aftermath of a Civil War battle, and one of my favourite songs in their entire catalog. I'm glad to see it finally placed on an album, no longer relegated to B-side or boxed set obscurity.
In conclusion, Too Low For Zero brought the rough patch that was the Punk/Disco/New Wave era to a satisfying conclusion for our heroes, as they survived their first set of challenges from various next big things, up-and-comers, trend-setters, various voices of the new generation and nay-sayers who said that their hit-making days were behind them. When most of these had been cast back into the obscurity from whence they came, Elton John and Bernie Taupin were indeed still standing. And twenty-three years later, they still are.