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Tumbleweed Connection
Elton John

Uni 73096
Released: January 1971
Chart Peak: #5
Weeks Charted: 37
Certified Gold: 3/22/71

Elton JohnThe only criticism heard with any frequency of Elton John's first American album, Elton John, was that the production was too grandiose. The melodies were superb, and lyrics frequently very good, and the performances flawless. However, Elton did inevitably get lost on many of his admirers, I am glad he toned things down a bit on Tumbleweed Connection. In fact, my main reservation about the new album is that he didn't go far enough.

Tumbleweed Connection centers around and is structured by Bernie Taupin's lyrics. Like the Band and Creedence, both of whom have influenced him, Taupin writes about the mythical American south and west and seems to prefer the past to the present as a subject. "There Goes a Well Known Gun" is about an outlaw on the run; "Country Comfort" concerns the pleasures of the farm. One of its verses brilliantly announces the coming of industrialization:

Down at the well they've got a new machine
Foreman says it cuts manpower by fifteen
But that ain't natural, well so old Clay would say
You see his a horse drawn man until his dying day.

"Son of Your Father" is a moralistic tale which, after describing a fight between friends that leaves them both dead, concludes that "...charity's an argument that only leads to harm."

Violence is very much a part of the vision Taupin has created here. Besides in "Well Known Gun" and "Son of Your Father," it recurs in "My Father's Gun," which is distinctly reminiscent of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." Oddly, Taupin too takes the Southern point of view. I guess the grey was alway synonymous with romanticism in American history but from what source does Taupin draw his emotions on the subject? "Oh I'll not rest until I know the cause is fought and won/ From this day on I'll wear my father's gun." And then, describing the joys of imagined victory for the South, "To watch the children growing and see the women sewing." When the South has won the Civil War? How strange.

The violent theme serves as the conclusion of the album as well. Here he seems to be vaguely echoing the sentiments of revolution although the historical context established in so many other songs on the album is no longer present.

Bring your family down to the riverside
Look to the east to see where the fat stock hide
Behind four walls of stone the rich man keeps
It's time we put the flame torch to their keep
 
Burn down the mission
If we're gonna stay alive
Watch the black smoke fly to heaven
See the red flame light the sky.

The several love songs on the album express old fashioned sentiments and one wonders if the context is understood by now or if the song represents a departure from the historical approach.

Taupin's constructions are often awkward and hard to sing and sometimes the ambiguities get out of hand. He is not a great lyricist but he is certainly an interesting one and he provides Elton John with a fine vehicle for expressing himself.

John is a fine singer in the soul-folk vein. His singing and his melodies on this album are exceptionally good. What isn't so exciting is the busy arrangements that seem to diffuse the energy of the performances. For example, John's "Country Comfort" has nothing close to the power of Rod Stewart's simpler, more straightforward interpretation. Especially irritating are the recurring use of such instruments as harmonicas, steel guitars, and other producer touches. It sounds too complicated to my ears and a simpler approach would have left more room for Elton to shine through without distraction.

Most cuts do feature just bass, drums, piano and guitar but every one is so busy that the sound loses its focus. Elton's piano is at the center and his overly-syncopated style contributes to the fragmented and sometimes chaotic style of the band tracks. One place where things do get themselves together is on "My Father's Gun." The big soul chorus conjures up the appropriate images brilliantly. The large sound on "Burn Down the Mission" is also effective, and the beginning of "Amoreena" is just great. Still, more cuts with the limited instrumentation of "Talking Old Soldiers" and "Love Song" might have given the album greater personal depth.

Tumbleweed Connection is interesting primarily because of the themes that Taupin has taken on and the melodies John has created. The performances are fine but somehow they lose the force one can envision them having had in some earlier stage of production. It is still an exciting album, one that I have played endlessly for a week, but it is also something of a missed opportunity. Tumbleweed Connection is simpler than John's last album and next time around I hope he goes all the way and gets down to basics. His is one of the few who is good enough not to need anything else.

- Jon Landau, Rolling Stone, 2-18-71.

Bonus Reviews!

Right off the bat this is an improvement over the first one because Tumbleweed is rock music, so all of those Hollywood strings and arrangements that made the first one just a bit trying after 1000 listens is gone. Which is not to say that Tumbleweed is perfect. As could be expected no chances are taken and the sound is still a bit too lush, and the songs just a bit too smooth. But this is really focusing too much. EJ has a good thing going for him and it sounds like it's gonna last awhile. The Taupin-John compositions here are even more infectious and artful than on the last album -- and the change between the two is just enough to satisfy even the most uncompromising fan. Somewhere deeper than the clever words and groovy tunes and soulful crescendos there's still a hint of something synthetic. But that's what they said about Creedence Clearwater, too.

- Danny Goldberg, Circus, 4/71.

Few things are obvious in these unsettled times; that Elton John is one of the most important new figures in music is among those that are. John is not one of those rare originals, like, say, Neil Young. Rather, he is the product of many influences -- rock, obviously, and blues and jazz -- and yet his style is personal enough. His strength is in how well he controls his voice. Possibly he has perfect pitch; at any rate, he has a feel for inflection that few, if any, male vocalists since Ray Charles have matched. Because of that, such songs as "Where To Now, St. Peter?," my favorite among these, aren't likely to be sung well by anyone else. John has concocted some fine melodies for Tumbleweed, and Bernie Taupin has again produced some interesting lyrics. The lyrics picture old-timey situations (including considerable violence) and viewpoints; the entire album seems to be about the past. One song, "Amoreena Love Song," is clearly mediocre, but you couldn't say that about any of the others. They're sensitive, subtle, and enigmatic. The arrangements are just a bit overdone, with a little plastic in them, but they are at least tasteful. John is a major talent, no question about it, and this recording is one of those to be judged by the toughest standards.

- Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, 6/71.

Here is another smash album for the British composer/performer and his lyricist, Bernie Taupin. John's singing and superb piano style are reflected well in almost every tune. His rendition of "Country Comfort," which is about one year old, is the best yet. Although this is but his second LP, Elton John's track record already speaks for itself, and the album is sure to be one of the biggest of the new year.

- Billboard, 1971.

Between the cardboard leatherette jacket and the cold-type rotogravure souvenir booklet is a piece of plastic with good melodies and bad Westerns on it. Why do people believe that these latter qualify as songpoems? Must be that magic word "connection," so redolent of trains, illegal substances, and I-and-thou. Did somebody say Grand Funk Railroad was hype? What about this? B-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Bernie Taupin and Elton John struck a particularly profitable vein of inspiration in American "cowboy" folklore and mythology which forms the background to Tumbleweed Connection and, in part, the following album Madman Across the Water. Little surprise, therefore, that Tumbleweed broke Elton into the American market. The album is a loosely-knit collection of songs capturing the feelings, lives and loves of the pioneering West with its echoes of the American civil war in songs like "Where to Now St. Peter?"

The most memorable track on the album, "Love Song," surprisingly wasn't written by the Taupin/John partnership at all but by Lesley Duncan, who accompanies Elton on acoustic guitar in this recording. Some of the best session musicians of the period, coupled with the voices of Dusty Springfield and Madeline Bell, help make this one of Elton's finest albums. The British Nimbus-produced CD provides a sutably gutsy sound, much improved over current pressings of the album, though some of the production affects now sound a little crude.

Tumbleweed remains one of Elton's most satisfying albums.

- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.

The songs Tumbleweed Connection have more structure than on Elton's debut and the production, again by Gus Dudgeon, shows a lighter more varied touch. The fictional Western slant to the lyrics and packaging (not uncommon to rock at the time, but from England with specs?) is not an enhancement. That conceit appeared to have come primarily from lyricist Bernie Taupin, but Elton was also obviously a willing participant. Weak as the early selections of the recording may be, the final two bring the proceedings to a strong conclusion. A ballad ("Talking Old Soldiers") and a rocker ("Burn Down The Mission") rank among the duo's best efforts. The sound of the original MCA CD isn't that clean or dynamically enhanced, and it does suffer from some hiss, but, it has nice spatial attributes and greatly enhanced vocal clarity. B

- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.

Elton John's followup was a thematic album about the American Old West (a Taupin fascination) that allowed John to rock out on several numbers. There are no hits here (!) but the album stands up well two decades later on. * * * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Tumbleweed Connection is a superb early collection in which Elton John explores blues-rock, soul and exquisite pop balladry. * * * 1/2

- Simon Glickman, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

Elton John has always had a jones for the mythology of the American West. Along with lyricist Bernie Taupin, he indulges his cowboy fantasies in songs such as "Burn Down the Mission." "Amoreena" plays unforgettably in the opening scene of the Al Pacino film Dog Day Afternoon.

Tumbleweed Connection was chosen as the 463rd greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

(2008 Deluxe Edition) With its flinty guitars and the natural gunslinger's gait of "Country Comfort" and "Burn Down the Mission," 1971's Tumbleweed Connection needs to improvement; it is one of the best country-rock albums ever written by London cowboys. But an early epic take of "Madman Across the Water," cut at the sessions with glam-blues guitar by Mick Ronson and included on a second CD of demos and stray singles, is reason enough to buy this edition. * * * * 1/2

- David Fricke, Rolling Stone, 9/4/08.

Elton and Taupin were obsessed with the Band -- that was practically a requirement for English rock stars in 1970. They tried to make their own version of Music From Big Pink with this, their third LP. The rootsy concept comes to life in "Where to Now, Saint Peter?" and "Country Comfort." The high point, "Amoreena," was never a hit, but it reached cinema immortality in the opening scene of the Al Pacino movie Dog Day Afternoon, setting the hungover Seventies vibe.

- Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone, 3/23/17.

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