(UMCom)—On the acclaimed 1971 album Tumbleweed Connection, Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin etched a series of detailed, sepia-toned miniatures that depicted the American South through the somewhat romantic eyes of two Englishmen. "Country Comfort," perhaps that hitless record’s best-known track, offered genial cameos of rural life that, in quasi-documentary fashion, and introduced likeable bumpkins rocking on their front porches, while largely unaffected by the pace of the world outside.
In a strange, Twilight Zone-like twist, John (now a Georgia resident) finds himself both ensconced in and marooned on a Southern veranda in "Porch Swing In Tupelo," swinging high and low and soberly pondering a pre-fame Elvis Presley "singing all praise to God through poverty’s tears." Elsewhere, on numbers including "All That I’m Allowed" and the bluesy "My Elusive Drug," he takes inventory of a life abundant and yet unfulfilled on Peachtree Road, a collection as rife with contradictions as a champagne carafe full of Mississippi moonshine.
The record features not only longtime collaborator Taupin but also two-thirds of his original band – drummer Nigel Olsson and guitarist Davey Johnstone. The disc finds John in good voice and contains moments both elegant and inspired, though the quartet’s creative synergy is at low ebb. Johnstone’s well-executed but restrained guitar work politely fills holes rather than injecting entire songs with the energy he once blasted into "Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting." To be fair to Johnstone, though, nothing here calls for that two-fisted approach. As John confesses on "Weight Of The World," he’s hardly getting rowdy on Saturday nights, content to play "one or two rounds of cards." In the song, John’s genteel Southern life appears to lack the simple, picturesque contentment of "Country Comfort," with a peace so guarded and fragile that buzzing flies in the kitchen disturb it. He claims to prefer the sight of a sunset to a spotlight, but later laments the dying of the light in "It’s Getting Dark In Here," a resigned sequel of sorts to "Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me."
He also pits romantic longing ("I Stop And I Breathe," "I Can’t Keep This From You") against emotional apathy in the cornpone country-pop of "Turn The Lights Out When You Leave," a strong contender for radio airplay. Also highly commercial is "Answer In The Sky," punctuated by chugging guitar, strings and horns that revisit the sound of John’s mid-70s hit "Philadelphia Freedom." "Answer," while humanistically hopeful ("I’m bankin’ on a chance that we’d believe/that good can still control the hearts of men,"), ultimately presents spiritual solutions as four-leaf clovers to be stumbled upon by the fortunate: "You don’t need a prayer/and there’s no price to ask why/sometimes you find an answer in the sky."
The disc’s only convincingly upbeat cut, the poignant "Too Many Tears," is one of John and Taupin’s most potent songs in many a year, built around a classically rolling John piano pattern and a lilting keyboard and guitar interlude. The song, which reviews American tragedies, encourages listeners to dry their eyes and "look at the beautiful, blue, blue sky." Though it clearly name checks John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the song is interestingly elusive about identifying a "barefoot man" who "lived a simple life." "I guess he knew," the lyric continues, "some things die so that other things might live." After singing a line so resonant with spiritual truth, it’s both ironic and tragic that John remains in his solitary porch swing, scanning a town that’s "closed on Sunday" where "Everybody’s in church/it’s as empty as the moon/this place here on Earth." The weary yearning in John’s voice suggests that Peachtree Road is not so much an album about as it is a picture of a life of fleeting pleasures. Elton once sang that "country comfort" was "the sweetest sound my ears have ever known." Here on Peachtree Road, the country is neither wholly comfortable nor home, and the sound, however melodic, is not nearly so sweet.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.