Album review: Elton John and Leon Russell’s ‘The Union’

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“The Union” is an unusual thing: a duet for four male voices. This might seem like an impossible equation but most art takes shape on at least two levels — the obvious one driven by star personalities and the crucial substratum where producers, songwriters or other key players assert themselves.

Stepping out of each other’s way, the best collaborators break their own patterns and surprise themselves. That happens for Elton John and Leon Russell, the stars of this rambling, charming album, and for producer T Bone Burnett and lyricist Bernie Taupin too.

The featured conversation here is between the superstar who smiles invitingly on the cover, eyebrow arched and fingers tinkling his grand piano, and the waylaid elder maverick who leans back defiantly against a battered old upright. In the liner notes John states that he’d approached Russell in hopes of returning his hero to the prominence he deserves, but from the sound of “The Union” it seems that his main motive was simply to play some fine boogie-woogie piano with him. The mood throughout is buoyant and mischievous. Hooks and polish matter less than the conversational exchange of rhythmic patterns and vocal lines.

John imports his soft-hearted way with big melodies and the brio that makes the world love his sweeping gestures. Russell contributes the slippery wisdom culled from years spent as an arranger and studio player as well as a frontman, especially during the early- to mid-1970s, when classic-rock stars like himself felt entitled to blur the lines between country, blues, soul and swing. Russell’s wryness, akin to Willie Nelson’s, tempers John’s lovable bluster. An elite crew recorded live in the studio, including cameo players Neil Young and Brian Wilson on vocals, Jim Keltner on drums and Marc Ribot on guitar, support the overwhelming mood of confidence.


Burnett brought the project to fruition, and what’s great is that he didn’t craft it to death — unlike the hushed sanctity of the Alison Krauss-Robert Plant award winner “Raising Sand,” this album is shaggy and full of fun. John’s longtime partner Taupin also does some of his best work in years, crafting snappy lines that add up to interesting tales, even when he’s indulging his dangerous passion for historical reenactment. The album might have been more sharply edited; around track 11 it starts to feel like the gathering has peaked. But it makes sense that everyone wanted to linger. Party talk is rarely this good.

— Ann Powers

Elton John and Leon Russell
“The Union”
Decca Records
Three stars (Out of four)


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