Elton John: The Lockdown Sessions (EMI Universal)
Verdict: Rocketman heads for the stars
Lana Del Rey: Blue Banisters (Polydor)
Verdict: Bold step forward
For Elton John, the first few weeks of last year’s lockdown were unremarkable. With his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour on hold, he watched Tiger King, played board games with husband David Furnish and sons Zachary and Elijah, and listened to music.
Apart from the swankier surroundings, his experiences were fairly typical. The one thing he didn’t intend doing — until he had a chat with his Los Angeles neighbour Charlie Puth — was make a new LP.
In the past three years, Elton has written his autobiography, Me; overseen an Oscar-winning biopic, Rocketman; and played more than 180 live shows. A little unscheduled downtime seemed to offer him the chance to take a breather.
But when pop-R&B singer Puth, 29, suggested writing a song together, Elton, a keen supporter of young talent through his Rocket Hour radio show, found it hard to resist. The pair came up with the love song After All, setting the template for Elton, 74, to embark on further collaborations.
‘Out of nothing I’d started an album,’ he says. ‘And it’s all Charlie Puth’s fault!’
For Elton John, the first few weeks of last year’s lockdown were unremarkable. The one thing he didn’t intend doing was make a new LP.
When pop-R&B singer Puth, 29, suggested writing a song together, Elton, a keen supporter of young talent through his Rocket Hour radio show, found it hard to resist
The payoff is The Lockdown Sessions, a 16-track LP of predominantly new material that pits one of British pop’s hardest-working stars against a diverse cast of youthful singers and producers, plus a handful of more familiar rock, soul and country names. The union of established stars and younger acts can often feel forced. There’s something opportunistic, for instance, about Coldplay’s latest album, Music Of The Spheres, with guest spots from K-pop act BTS and Selena Gomez. But that’s not the case here: Elton’s first LP in six years was made remotely, often via Zoom, but it’s more fired-up than locked down.
It has also given him his first No 1 single for 16 years in the pulsating Cold Heart, a joint effort with Dua Lipa and Australian electronic act Pnau that stitches together four classic Elton tracks, including Rocket Man and Sacrifice, to generate an episodic piece of pop that sounds like a proper song and not a jarring mash-up.
It’s a testament to Elton’s enduring appeal that Cold Heart has also made him the first solo singer to achieve Top Ten hits in six different decades. Among the other stars to feature on the album are country singers Jimmie Allen and Lil Nas X, rappers Young Thug and Nicki Minaj, and British dance producer SG Lewis. Rina Sawayama duets on Chosen Family and pop duo Surfaces excel on the uplifting Learn To Fly. All of them take Elton into unfamiliar territory without undermining his musical integrity.
Not everything here is new. A version of the Pet Shop Boys’ It’s A Sin, with Olly Alexander, was performed at the BRITs. The Pink Phantom, with Gorillaz and Atlanta R&B star 6lack, was part of the virtual band’s Song Machine project. Miley Cyrus’s overwrought Nothing Else Matters featured on Metallica’s recent Blacklist LP.
But there’s plenty of fresh material. Amid the bold detours, there is also an affectionate nod to the past in Simple Things, a tuneful country duet with Brandi Carlile that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Some of the biggest names close the show. Stevie Wonder sings and plays harmonica on Finish Line. Stevie Nicks shines on Stolen Car. There’s a revamp of Glen Campbell’s I’m Not Gonna Miss You, a poignant song about dementia from the country legend’s posthumous final album.
The Lockdown Sessions succeeds on the back of Elton’s enthusiasm for music.
He believes established artists should offer ‘friendship and authenticity’ to rising stars. More than 50 years after his first hit, Your Song, the Rocketman remains a vibrant elder statesman.
When Lana Del Rey released her breakthrough single Video Games in 2011, she was viewed by many as a novelty. She styled herself ‘the gangster Nancy Sinatra’ but few expected her enigmatic persona or smouldering balladry to endure. How wrong they were. A decade on, she is a hugely influential star: without her, there would be no Billie Eilish or Lorde.
She is also in a rich vein of creativity at the moment. Blue Banisters is her eighth album, and it arrives just seven months after its predecessor, Chemtrails Over The Country Club.
The California-based New Yorker’s forte remains the bruised torch song, but there is subtle evolution too — rock guitar on Living Legend and a brass band on If You Lie Down With Me.
This turnaround stems partly from a change of backroom staff. With her regular sidekick Jack Antonoff absent, Del Rey, 36, works with a variety of producers, including Kanye West collaborator Mike Dean, U.S. veteran Rick Nowels, British musician Miles Kane and her ex-boyfriend Barrie-James O’Neill, of Glasgow band Kassidy.
When Lana Del Rey released her breakthrough single Video Games in 2011, she was viewed by many as a novelty. Few expected her enigmatic persona or smouldering balladry to endure. How wrong they were. A decade on, she is a hugely influential star: without her, there would be no Billie Eilish or Lorde
Blue Banisters is Del Rey’s eighth album, and it arrives just seven months after its predecessor, Chemtrails Over The Country Club
Her songwriting continues to mature. Wildflower Wildfire archly references Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb, but the knowing nods to pop’s past are thinner on the ground. ‘I’m writing my own story, and no one can tell it but me,’ she said, of this LP, on Twitter. Best to take that with a pinch of salt, but her songs are now more intimate and nuanced.
On Textbook, she examines her relationship with her parents, while Violets For Roses celebrates the renewal of a love affair and the end of lockdown: ‘The girls are running round in summer dresses with their masks off, and it makes me so happy.’
Other tracks are more typical: the brilliant ballad Black Bathing Suit sounds like something from a 1960s prom movie.
When so much modern pop is generic, Del Rey continues to trust her own instincts while casting a wry eye over Californian life.
Blue Banisters is unlikely to win her many new fans, but it reiterates her status as a true original.
Backroom bro steps into spotlight
Finneas: Optimist (Polydor)
Verdict: Billie’s brother goes solo
Finneas O’Connell is already one of pop’s hottest properties. He co-wrote and produced his sister Billie Eilish’s two studio albums and helped create, with Billie, the theme for the latest Bond film.
Now, with his first solo album, the Californian backroom boy is edging towards the limelight in his own right.
Finneas, 24, who also plays piano and guitar, lacks Billie’s star quality but he is still a significant talent, and Optimist combines musical adventure with heartfelt lyrics that balance Gen Z angst with the sunnier moods the title suggests.
Finneas O’Connell has released his first solo album
A Concert Six Months From Now is a pandemic love story that builds from an acoustic groove to a grunge-like climax that finds him yearning for the post-lockdown normality of taking his girlfriend to see a band at the Hollywood Bowl: ‘I’ve already purchased two seats for their show, I guess I’m an optimist.’
Another track, The 90s, yearns for what he sees as a more innocent age. ‘You could sign me up for a world without the internet,’ he sings.
Finneas has also co-written for Justin Bieber and others, but this is an intriguing sidestep.