Album Review: Elton John’s ‘The Diving Board’ proves the perfect platform

Improbable as it may sound, 30 albums in, Elton John has made the most piano-focused album of his legendary career.

On “The Diving Board,” John”s first solo album in seven years, out today, John”s piano playing is center stage in a way he”s never presented so fully on record. The album opens with a rarity: “Oceans Away” is John alone with his piano and the song, about WW1 and WW2 war veterans, serves as an invitation for what”s to come in the next 14 tracks.

Although occasionally augmented by strings, guitars and horns, “The Diving Board” primarily consists of John on vocals and piano, Raphael Saadiq on bass, and Jay Bellerose on drums and it”s all he needs. That trio (with Nigel Olsson on drums and Dee Murray on bass) is how John started more than 40 years ago and when producer T Bone Burnett suggested that John revisit it, he readily agreed.

At 66, John”s voice and playing is still so strong and nimble that he has no need to hide behind superfluous backing vocals or tracks crowded with unnecessary fillers.

Bernie Taupin”s lyrics are among his most cinematic. The Brown Dirt Cowboy has always had a fascination with America and Americana and his stories here reflect that, especially such tracks as “The Ballad of Blind Tom,” where he addresses Jim Crow laws. On “Oscar Wilde Gets Out,” Taupin writes about the year the exiled writer spent lecturing in the U.S. in the late 1800s. “The New Fever Waltz” addresses WWI soldiers in the trenches.

John”s  rollicking playing on “Jubilee” is a staccato delight, as is his barrelhouse turn on the jaunty, “Mexican Vacation (Kids in the Candlelight),” the albums most upbeat track. The classical, taut intro to “The Ballad of Blind Tom” jumps off the album. On “My Quicksand,” he turns the middle section into a jazz improvisation.  The swaying, breezy “Can”t Stay Alone Tonight” will remind longtime fans of “I Guess That”s Why They Call It The Blues.”  “Take This Dirty Water” starts out like a saloon-hall rag before morphing into a gospel number.

First single, “Home Again,” is a wistful, haunting ballad about longing to return to the place we”re from. “We all dream of leaving but spent all our time trying to get back home again.” Though John has made it clear that he is not chasing radio play again, the song is his 69th entry on Billboard”s Adult Contemporary chart, far and away the most of any artist in the chart”s history.

To drive home the point that this is a piano-based album, John includes three instrumental interludes, none longer than 97 seconds, titled “Dream # 1,”  “Dream # 2,” and “Dream # 3.”

John has said the languid title track, which closes the album, is about the troubles that starlets like Lindsey Lohan find themselves in as they seem to spiral downward. “Sink or swim,” he sings in the cautionary tale, “in your lily white skin, high above the diving board.”

To his credit, John has no interest in trying to recapture the days of “Crocodile Rock” or “The Bitch Is Back,” although the album could have used a few more uptempo tunes.Instead, he”s made a record that captures where he is today. And as the album proves, he”s definitely still standing.