Back before he became THE biggest rock star of the 1970s – before the commercial blowout success of “Crocodile Rock” and “Rocket Man” and “Bennie and the Jets” – Elton John was a somewhat serious folk-rock artist who happened to play piano instead of guitar. Released in October 1970, Tumbleweed Connection is his third studio album and it’s perfectly in synch with the singer-songwriter movement of the new decade.
The early 70s saw the emergence of a new trend in singer-songwriters who, arising out of the folk music world of the 60s, captivated music fans with albums that featured a compelling and intimate sound. The troubadours of the new decade included Carole King, James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell. Each artist had a unique way of expressing personal and revealing lyrics wrapped in a blend of folk, country, or soft-rock.
-From Mountains High by yours truly, page 21
A concept album whose songs are generally focused on themes from the American West, the splendid conceit of Tumbleweed Connection is that neither Elton John nor his thoughtful lyricist Bernie Taupin had yet set foot in the United States. They were Englishmen whose knowledge of the Old West came from movies and from music. Taupin reflected on the inspiration behind his lyrics.
Everybody thinks that I was influenced by Americana and by seeing America first hand, but we wrote and recorded the album before we’d even been to the States. It was totally influenced by The Band’s album, Music from Big Pink, and Robbie Robertson’s songs. I’ve always loved Americana, and I loved American Westerns.
-liner notes, Tumbleweed Connection, 1995 reissue
Much in the same way that the Beatles had regurgitated American rhythm and blues and spit it back out with a uniquely appealing British sensibility, so also did Taupin and John present their U.K. take on the Old West, as symbolized visually by the album’s gatefold album cover, which featured the songwriters loitering at a train station. The sepia tone implies rural Americana, but the photo shoot was at Horsted Keynes railway station, approximately 30 miles south of London. Indeed, the advertisements posted on the station walls amusingly display such British products as the Daily Telegraph newspaper and Cadbury’s Chocolates.
Interestingly, given the Old West themes, the songs themselves do not have the country & western or even the country rock feel that one might expect. The closest the music comes to Americana is on “Country Comfort” with Elton’s amazing Gospel-piano stylings, and the church revival feel of "Ballad of a Well-Known Gun." But it doesn’t matter. The quality of the songwriting is such that it transcends the need to express the lyrics in traditional C&W trappings, and Elton’s fabulous musicians contribute superb rock realizations.
Tumbleweed Connection is best enjoyed as an Americana opera, and the inclusion of a lyrics libretto supports that idea, enabling the listener to follow along. I don’t have time to review every song but here are some standout favorites of mine.
“Come Down in Time”
Bernie’s wistful tale of unfulfilled love is achingly supported by the way Elton weaves his soulful voice around his lyricist’s raw vulnerability, almost like a chant with arpeggio piano underneath. When this duo first started writing together, it was unclear whether or not the partnership would succeed. Taupin’s lyrics, while filled with imagery and poetry, were perhaps too wordy for pop music, but John somehow found a way to make it work, expressing in his exquisite melodies and passionate vocals what Taupin was feeling in his soul. Has there ever been a classier song about the girl that got away?
That piano! I lived and breathed each new Elton John album specifically to learn from him how to play rock piano. Elton’s gift is in two areas: his creative arpeggios, and his phrasing. It’s difficult for me to explain on paper but, like a skilled rock drummer, Elton throws in piano fills after every fourth measure that help to drive the song forward. As mentioned earlier, this song has a Gospel-style flavor that greatly influenced the way I play and compose Gospel music for liturgy.
Ah, that arpeggio piano riff intro! Back in 1972, I learned this song specifically to play it for my friends and I became very popular at parties because of “Amoreena.” Bernie paints another lovely portrait of a young cowboy away from home, most likely on a cattle run, as he yearns for the girl he left behind.
“Talking Old Soldiers”
A standout track on an album of standouts, “Talking Old Soldiers” features Elton accompanying himself solo, with no other band member. A revealing dialogue between a bar patron and an old soldier, perhaps a Civil War veteran, John’s recitative approach to storytelling was unlike anything else heard on rock records at the time. This may arguably be Elton’s finest moment as a vocalist on any record he has ever recorded and, given his enormous volume of work, that’s saying a lot. His phrasing, his sincere rawness, and the poignant way he hits the high notes, especially at the end – “You’ve got your MEM-o-ries . . .” Oh, Lord! What a talent! One can almost picture that rundown bar out in the middle of nowhere with sawdust on the floor as the old soldier shares the bitterness of his life of regret. A masterpiece!
“Burn Down the Mission”
This is another song I learned to impress my friends at parties. The piano intro once again totally grabs your attention. And the track’s production is truly impressive, especially the way the band explodes in the middle and at the outro, which makes for an epic end to the album. The excitement is underscored by arranger Paul Buckmaster’s symphonic orchestra, which was more understated on Tumbleweed, in comparison with the way the strings almost overwhelmed the singer’s previous album, the self-named Elton John (the one that gave the world the iconic “Your Song.”)
So many great songs! I do want to mention at least one more: “Love Song” by Leslie Duncan, a friend of Elton whom he generously wanted to showcase. No piano; just simply guitar, which proved to be a good counterpoint to the other songs. “Love Song” became a popular song to perform at weddings in the 1970s.
Love is the opening door.
Love is what we came here for.
No one could offer you more.
Do you know what I mean?
Have your eyes really seen?
If you haven’t heard Tumbleweed Connection yet, I encourage you to do so. I’m a big fan of the Rocketman’s 1970s output but, after all is said and done, I think Tumbleweed is probably my favorite Elton John album. It reveals a hungry artist who was on the cusp of fame, doing everything in his power to find his voice and his place in popular music.