ELTON JOHN “Sleeping With the Past.” MCA ** 1/2: <i> Albums are rated on a scale of one (poor) to five (a classic) stars.</i>
While they dedicate this album to soul music pioneers, Elton John and Bernie Taupin are still sleeping comfortably in the cushiony, well-constructed bed of their accustomed uptown-pop digs instead of flopping on some funky ol’ R&B; mattress.
“Sleeping With the Past” is no juicy soul update, but it is a savvy piece of smooth pop craft resplendent with as consistently strong a sequence of tunes as John has put together since his mid-'70s days as the dominant force on the pop charts.
Last year, John shed his peacock feathers in favor of a more low-key persona. He follows through here with a vocal approach that emphasizes tasteful restraint rather than flamboyance. Taupin’s lyrics get John into some silly situations on numbers like the unconvincingly nostalgic “Club at the End of the Street,” the trite wedding-bell blues of “I Never Knew Her Name” and the doubly trite Dixie-isms of “Amazes Me.” But John is always ready with a melody that keeps things listenable.
The strongest song here is “Durban Deep,” a catchy, reggae-beat number that eschews the soapbox sloganeering of most songs about the plight of South African blacks, focusing instead on the apolitical but deeply felt blues of a hard-pressed miner.
Other highlights are two ballads about hurtful love, “Whispers” and “Blue Avenue.” “Stone’s Throw From Hurtin’ ” is a taut bit of R&B; that Bonnie Raitt might one day want to have a go at.
John might have been better off basing all of this in an authentic piano sound instead of the digital keyboards that dominate the album. But warm singing and consistently hummable melodies make “Sleeping With the Past” a pleasant throwback to his ‘70s salad days.