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“There’s really no point in asking what if,” concluded Elton John’s 2019 memoir, Me. “The only question worth asking: what’s next?” It’s a question his fans will find themselves repeating – with varying levels of delight, amusement, boredom and wincing horror – while listening to The Lockdown Sessions.
In notes accompanying the release, he writes that the pandemic ought to have given him the perfect opportunity to write music for the pile of “fantastic” lyrics that Bernie Taupin had sent him. But – as most people with grand plans realised – the uncertainty of the situation made deep focus elusive. Short-term projects were easier to handle, and John seems to have been game for pretty much everything. As pop’s honorary uncle, he’s always enjoyed sharing his spotlight with the up-and-coming young artists he admires, while continuing to hobnob with A-list contemporaries. There’s a laudable generosity about the concept that’s made audible in the swaggering ballast of John’s ever-deepening voice and the familiar rolling thunder of his piano style.
But The Lockdown Sessions is still a disorienting scrapbook of a record. It Sellotapes together 16 collaborations that bounce between genres, and between covers and originals, in a way that risks staking the listener back into 2020’s weirdly scattered and out-of-time mindset. There are club tracks (with Dua Lipa and SG Lewis), country croons (with Glen Campbell and Brandi Carlisle), lo-fi indie grooves (with Gorillaz), pop (with Charlie Puth and Jimmie Allen), wonky R&B (with Lil Nas X), heritage jams (with Stevie Nicks and Stevie Wonder) and soft metal yowlers (with Miley Cyrus).
It doesn’t help that ghosts of John’s best-loved melodies drift – remixed and reworked – through proceedings. Club banger “Cold Heart” (with Dua Lipa) does a terrific job of mashing up old songs “Sacrifice” and “Rocket Man”, giving both a tendon-twanging freshness. But elsewhere the rambling, new synth rocker “Stolen Car” (with Stevie Nicks) has a piano line that almost-quotes from his classics “Tiny Dancer” and “Sorry” without delivering either.
There are a couple of stunning vocal performances. Rina Sawayama sings like a galleon in full sail on the big, bold ballad “Chosen Family”. Her ode to the importance of friendship reaches across cultures and genders to make the connection with John. “We don’t need to be related to relate… we been goin’ through the same thing,” he sings, pounding the keys for all he’s worth. Lil Nas X is wonderfully tender on “One of Me” (which appeared on his debut album last month). Miley Cyrus turns her rapier rasp up to 11 for a cover of Metallica’s 1991 waltz-time schmaltzer “Nothing Else Matters” (with Metallica’s Robert Trujillo on bass, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith on drums, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma on cello – peak lockdown random supergrouping!). Grim moments include Young Thug’s sleazy sex rap on “I Will Always Love You”, where lines rhyming skirt, dirt and squirt are offset by John singing on a chorus that plays like a faint echo of Queen’s “Radio Gaga”. Meanwhile, a cover of the Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s a Sin” with Years & Years is a tinny echo of the powerful performance the pairing delivered at this year’s Brit Awards.
In the middle ground are a few hummable collaborations (“Learn to Fly” with Surfaces, “Finish Line” with Stevie Wonder). During these, I wonder if this is the album that families will be able to play together in the car. Perhaps on the long drives to each other’s homes this Christmas. There’s a little Glen Campbell for grandad, a splash of Lil Nas X for the kids. A bit of fun. A few laughs. And a few tracks to have everybody whining: “Are we nearly there yet?”