At its best, the music of Elton John reminds me of the ocean. It opens off with broad ripples of instrumental music, their sounds sparkling like rays of sunlight. As the song progresses, the music, with its ever-shifting nuances, rapidly builds to a crescendo. The uplifting impact of this intense delivery is comparable to that of a wave breaking on the shore. Finally, all is calm again until the next wave.
While this is the ideal impression of John’s music, it is not always an accurate one. John’s musical output is usually brilliant, but his “Duets” album contains a surprisingly large amount of below par performances. What makes this even more surprising is that many of the more mediocre duets involve combinations with top musical talent, including k.d. lang and Little Richard.
The first song of the album, “Teardrops,” (John/lang) more or less sets a precedent for subsequent duets: vanilla-flavored lyrics, a lack of intensity, and lackluster instrumental support.
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But this is by no means true for every performance, as the next song, “When I Think About Love (I Think About You)” (John/P.M. Dawn) dazzlingly displays. This song has everything that “Teardrops” does not: strong contributions from both artists, a solid refrain in which John and Dawn thrust their voices forward in unison, and an altogether enjoyable sound.
Happily, at a time when the album is most in need of a good song, John finally responds in style. He closes the first side with not one but two sterling efforts, “A Woman’s Needs” (John/Tammy Wynette) and the superb “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” (John/George Michael).
“Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” is pure Elton. Almost as if in realization of this, Michael takes a back seat to Elton during the song. But unlike “True Love,” the rhythmic sound of the piano is like the ebb and flow of the ocean, adding a steadiness and progression to the lyrics.
Elton returns to his old mediocre habits on the second side. In “Love Letters” (John and the delightful Bonnie Raitt), the presence of Raitt and the instrumental accompaniments add a country-western flavor to the song. While the slow pace of “Love Letters” contrasts with the upbeat style of “I’m Your Puppet,” both are welcome changes from the drab format of the first four songs on the second side.
“Born to Lose” (John/Leonard Cohen) creates an entirely new mood. The song itself conjures up scenes of some bluesy 1930s nightclub. Cohen’s deep, gravelly voice adds to the mournful but resigned tone of the song. Cognizant of this, Elton now is the one who takes a back seat and lets Cohen and the piano do their thing. The last song on the album, “Duets for One” (a solo performance), is something of an anticlimax, but it closes off “Duets” on a high note.
Upon listening to “Duets,” one might wonder why so many songs are so bland. The quality of the songs chosen was mediocre at best. Others, such as “Teardrops” and “The Power,” may have combined too much talent. It is interesting that two of the album’s better offerings, “When I Think About Love (I Think About You)” and “A Woman’s Needs,” are both duets with lesser-known artists.
Whatever the reasons, much of “Duets” is comprised of underachieving efforts from performers with great potential