Leon Russell has been missed! Elton John must have voiced a similar sentiment when he sought him out for this wondrous collaborative effort.
A bit of history here: way back in the early ‘70s, when Elton was just beginning his ascent to superstardom, he was Leon Russell’s opening act. Leon was his hero and Elton’s never lost his admiration and respect for him.
Fast forward to 2010. Sixty-eight-year-old Leon hadn’t been in the limelight for many years. Poor health had kept him from actively keeping up with his career. After he recovered from a brain operation, Elton (who has always been an advocate for underappreciated artists new and old) thought it would be an excellent time to get the great man recording again.
The Union is an even better effort than their fans might have hoped for. Both men sound assured, energized and, yes, young again.
Despite all he’s been through, Leon’s voice hasn’t changed. That gritty drawl is unmistakable and as vital as ever. He rocks the upbeat “Hearts Have Turned To Stone.” Horns wail in the background, a soulful chorus providing the backup, along with Elton’s enthusiastic “yeah, yeah, yeahs.”
The ballad “Gone To Shiloh” tells the story of a Northern soldier going off to fight in the Civil War–nice to see that lyricist Bernie Taupin still holds a fascination with Americana after all these years. Neil Young lends a hand with the vocals, which is a fine treat. With its wails and moans, the dirge-like ballad “There’s No Tomorrow” sounds like the melancholy opening of a New Orleans funeral march.
The rocker “Monkey Suit” sounds suspiciously like an outtake from Elton’s last studio album, The Captain and the Kid. The same holds true for “The Best Part of the Day,” a song of a longtime friendship (“You’re my best friend/You shared my crazy ways”). But there is nothing wrong with that. Kid was one of Elton and Bernie’s best efforts, and these songs are as good as anything on that record.
Probably my favorite cuts on The Union are the gorgeous “When Love Is Dying” and the chug-a-long rocker, “A Dream Come True,” where Elton and Leon trade verses and piano licks, backed again by a gospel choir. It’s a rollicking, joyful piece, which harkens back to those touring days of their youth. It is no surprise they wrote it together.
The album was produced by T-Bone Burnett and features Jim Keltner on drums, Jim Thompson on tenor sax, Marc Ribot on guitars, Robert Randolph on steel guitar, along with contributions from Brian Wilson, Don Was, and Booker T. Jones. It marks the first time since his late seventies disco fiasco, Victim of Love, that Elton has recorded an album without his band. The end result here is monumentally better than that old disco snoozer.
The final song on The Union,“The Hands of Angels,” is Leon’s thanks to those who helped him return to the business of making music:
“Johnny and the Governor came and brought me to my senses/They made me feel just like a king/Made me lose all my bad defenses.”
Thank you, Leon. And welcome back.
The Union is on Decca Records. It will be available on Oct.19th.