Multimillion-selling artist Elton John – who’s released more than 30 albums, reached Number One eight times and won countless awards – is keen to stress that for him, the first stretch of lockdown was the same as it was for everybody else.
When COVID-19 grounded the Rocketman and derailed his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour in early 2020, he stayed at home in LA, watching Tiger King and losing at family Snakes and Ladders tournaments. Weirdly, this duality has always been part of Reg’s appeal: he may be part of the glitzy establishment, but he also has the one-of-us relatability that makes it seem like he’d be happy bitching about Madonna over a garden fence.
In other ways, though, Elton used the enforced isolation as a time of artistic liberation: too riven by anxiety to concentrate on a new album proper, he recorded a series of collaborations, compiled here, with artists as diverse as Stevie Wonder, Stevie Nicks, Young Thug, Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus. The roll-call might initially seem surprising, but perhaps it shouldn’t be, considering that over the years he’s duetted with everyone from Pete Doherty to RuPaul.
Eight of these 16 tracks have previously been released: his current chart-topper ‘Cold Heart’, a collaboration with Dua Lipa, imperiously drapes itself over the disco-revival chaise longue, and sees Australian dance-pop trio Pnau mash up past Elton songs ‘Rocket Man’, ‘Sacrifice’, ‘Kiss The Bride’ and ‘Where’s The Shoorah?’. It’s not the only track here that sets its sights on the dancefloor: ‘Orbit’ , with Reading producer SG Lewis, is a glitterball-infused pop-house banger that conjures up Elton’s hedonistic nights at New York’s Studio 54 in the 1970s.
Elton says the album’s genre-hopping reminded him of his time as a session musician in the late ‘60s, and its strength lies is its giddy eclecticism. From a noted champion of new artists (as listeners of his Apple Music show Rocket Hour will know), ‘The Lockdown Sessions’ doesn’t sound like an onanistic lunge for Gen Z contemporaneity; nor does it feel like a gimmicky BRIT Awards collab novelty.
The break-up anthem ‘Always Love You’, featuring Young Thug and Nicki Minaj, initially sounds like a cut from ‘The Hamilton Mixtape’: it begins as a theatrically grandiose Elton piano ballad, before a trap-beat kicks in and Thug joins in with a nimble flow. One minute the 74-year-old will be tinkling the ivories on Miley Cyrus’ gleaming and gravel-voiced cover of Metallica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters’; the next he’s joining in the breezily jazzy self-empowerment of ‘Learn To Fly’ (featuring Texan duo Surfaces) and collaborating with Charlie Puth on the Disney-style power ballad ‘After All’, which could have been from his Lion King soundtrack.
Elton’s known for taking new LGBTQ+ talent under his wing, and his collabs with queer acts have an added piquancy: a reworking of Rina Sawayama’s rainbow flag-waving torch song ‘Chosen Family’ feels especially resonant after an 18 months where many gay young people were forced back into their parental homes and conceal their true identities, and in a climate of rising anti-trans hate crimes. As their paean to finding kinship in community reaches its majestic key-change, you can practically see the iPhone torches being held aloft.
Sex and shame is similarly explored in ‘It’s a Sin’, a cover of the Pet Shop Boys 1987 Number One (proceeds from the new track were donated to the Elton John AIDS Foundation). Tying in with the breathtaking, Olly Alexander-starring AIDS drama of the same name, it starts off as a subtle piano number, with Alexander’s pleading gossamer vocal, before Elton (who was only three years older than his young charge is now when the first cases of AIDS were identified in the US) kicks in alongside the Stuart Price-produced disco beat.
The country waltz of ‘Simple Things’ (where he links up with Brandi Carlile, who identifies as lesbian), meanwhile, sees John in a dive-bar in a Stetson, chewing tobacco and imparting his hard-won wisdom. It’s also heartening to hear the boundary-breaking Lil Nas X on ‘One of Me’: over an addictive melody, the 22-year-old voices his mocking inner-critic, like somebody reading out tweets from his trolls. Perhaps the record’s best moment, though, comes courtesy of the forward-facing melancholia of Gorillaz’s ‘The Pink Phantom’, which sees 2-D and an autotuned 6lack lament lost love.
But if Gorillaz, Pnau, and Lil Nas X bottle the zeitgeist, veteran artists arrive with instant classics. Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder contributes rollicking glam-rock throwback ‘E-Ticket Ride’ and Stevie Wonder takes it to church with the spiritual ‘Finish Line’, while Stevie Nicks swoops in up for the relationship-dissecting ‘Stolen Car’, which sounds like the couple from ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ 45 years on, looking through life’s rear-view mirror.
All in all, ‘The Lockdown Sessions’’ all-bets-off stylistic game of spin-the-bottle feels attuned to 2021’s post-genre Spotify world, as Elton continues to further his musical universe. The Rocketman remains in orbit.
Release date: October 22
Record label: Mercury Records