What's left for Elton John to prove? The guy is a knight of the round table. He's sold approximately six gajillion records. He's got a live residency in Las Vegas. Hell, he's even paid tribute to Liberace on the Emmys!

John could put on a show in any arena in the world and sell a ton of tickets, just playing the same hits over and over. Yet here he is trotting out another album, 'The Diving Board,' and it's perplexing. He's done it all, and he can perform till he keels over onstage, but creating new art? Really, Hercules?

Such is the plight of the aging rock star: still playing to sizable crowds, yet barely making a dent on the charts. Depending on your point of view, that's either tremendously sad or tremendously liberating.

John sounds liberated on 'The Diving Board,' and while it's always risky to call any major-artist release "their best since [insert title of last comeback album here]," this is one of the Rocket Man's strongest sets of new music in recent years. At the same time, it lacks even cursory nods to catchy songs; it's a rewarding if challenging listen.

Ever since John's wildly successful run of hits from the early '70s to the early '90s, casual fans and die-hards alike have wanted some nebulous "return to form," usually centering around a more piano-driven sound. The truth is, John has been making that kind of music again for more than a decade now -- from 2001's 'Songs From the West Coast' through 2010's 'The Union' LP with Leon Russell. They're organic, acoustic and grounded albums that feature quintessential Elton John songwriting and the lyrics of Bernie Taupin, still a master at a gorgeous turn of phrase, and still obsessed with the Old West and the Old South.

The songs on 'The Diving Board' do lead with piano, guitar and drums, with some percussion accents from legendary Motown session man Jack Ashford on tambourine. There's a notable absence of hooks, which speaks to John's own understanding of his place in the modern musical universe. No singles to sell means no need to play the pop game, and so these melodies can meander through chord changes that are distinctly John, but also rich and unexpected. That makes it easy to compare this record to his earliest work, before he became an unprecedented hit machine. Fans will know the shift well, from musical tone poems on 'Tumbleweed Connection' and 'Madman Across the Water' to a campier, catchier sound on 'Honky Chateau' and 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.'

'The Diving Board' echoes that earlier John, but it echoes an earlier era in rock as well, when the lofty title of "singer-songwriter" bestowed upon the artist a greater degree of latitude than the more hit-oriented acts on the scene. It was up to the fans to meet the artist at whatever level they chose to make their grand statements. Those old John records were great, but they also required work to absorb. Similarly, 'The Diving Board' is not an easy record to grasp. The first few listens offer precious few of those magical hooks; it expects the listener to spend the time necessary to fully realize its pleasures.

Songs like 'My Quicksand' and 'Oceans Away' frame the mistakes of impulsive youth through the perspective of advancing age. That's an easy crutch for older songwriters, but Taupin doesn't always temper his observations with any wry humor; when John sings about "the ones that had to stay / Beneath the little wooden cross / Oceans away," there's a real sense of the gray skies over a lonely grave site in some European country, where those lost in the great wars found their final rest. On 'Can't Stay Alone Tonight' and 'The New Fever Waltz,' they explore the delicate desperation of seeking and finding love late in life.

There's no pretension about the songs on 'The Diving Board'; at this late stage, John and Taupin are who they are, and they're not trying to fit into any easy box that the music industry or fan expectations may have prepared for their burial. It's a record that may put off some fans, but it's not made for young ears in search of the Next Big Thing, or casual fans hoping for another 'Philadelphia Freedom.' Longtime John observers will be familiar with the drill -- 'The Diving Board' is simply a fine set of new music from a pair of brilliant songwriters. Settle in and let the music happen.


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