*** 1/2 ELTON JOHN, "The One", MCA

The recent "Two Rooms" tribute album officially conferred "old master" status on the team of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Quite an honor, but "The One" answers back that Elton isn't ready yet to be relegated to the status of museum piece or elder statesman. This may be the most insightful and alert-to-its-times album that composer John and lyricist Taupin have ever done.

Aside from the title track, which overreaches for grandeur in lyric and production, "The One" succeeds with vignettes of people in turmoil. Through it all, John is a soulful, sumptuously melodic voice of comfort and encouragement. He's still quite a piano pounder too, given the winding, jazzy solo that caps "Sweat It Out" and the attempt to burn down the mission all over again on "Whitewash County," a critique of the chameleonic guises of hatred.

Almost everything here is first-rate, but of particular note is the soul ballad "When a Woman Doesn't Want You," an intimate, never-preachy appeal to stop the sexual coercion of women. Elton was fun as the Fop of the Pops, but the humaneness, idealism and understanding that warm "The One" become an old master even better.

Albums are rated on a scale of one asterisk (poor) to four (excellent).

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