By the end of the '70s Elton John was unmistakably one of the biggest pop/rock stars in the world, even if some would suggest that his career appeared to be in a measure of decline at that point. Still, once his collaboration with long-time songwriting partner Bernie Taupin became fully renewed, John churned out some high-quality tunes throughout the first half of the '80s, many distinguished by memorable melodies and sophisticated lyrics. To a slightly lesser extent, the hits continued through decade's end, but John had by then entered an adult contemporary zone of safety that clearly left his recordings diminished.
Despite a brief songwriting hiatus from usual partner Taupin, John delivers a typically accomplished melody and vocal performance on this track from 1980's 21 at 33. Unlike some of his later '80s efforts, this song also holds up well next to much of the singer's distinct and timeless arrangements from the '70s. There are some slightly inorganic electronic moments and perhaps too much saxophone, but the composition (with lyrics from Gary Osborne) remains strong enough throughout to stand as an engaging listen. Even so, I'm nothing less than shocked to learn how much of an American hit this was, climbing to No. 3 on Billboard's pop charts and No. 1 adult contemporary. Maybe I was too young, but this one still feels more obscure than that.
Also from 21 at 33, this sleeper gem benefits as well from a sharp collaboration with an unfamiliar lyricist, in this case the hard-rocking, politically conscious Tom Robinson. Again, despite some occasionally heavy-handed orchestration, this tune has a welcome throwback feel to it, sounding far more of a piece with a song like "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" than many of the too-boppy meanderings still to come for John's career. Despite barely scraping the bottom regions of the Top 40, this is a piano ballad with much going for it melodically and lyrically. Wistful and haunting, the song probably bears the distinction of being the only pop song to contain the unique titular two-word phrase. A+ on vocabulary, Tom!
3. "Blue Eyes"
Almost entirely coming off as a slow-burn, lovelorn torch song, this track from 1982's Jump Up! sounds decidedly smoky yet somehow well-matched to John's fluid and versatile but always distinctive style. Working effectively in the lower regions of his vocal range, John casts a compelling spell through the sense of longing with which he imbues this performance. Another adult contemporary chart-topper, this track flirted with the American Top 10 and revealed a solid niche forming for this phase of John's career. Ultimately, the singer would deviate several times from his established path during the '80s, but the soft rock sound he achieves here remains a pleasant moment from a catalogue full of similar turns.
Although "Blue Eyes" performed just about as well in the UK as in North America, for much of this period John's hits built their greatest success in the U.S. In the case of this unforgettable ballad about the loss of John Lennon at the end of 1980, it may just be coincidence that the tune struck a far deeper chord in the country in which Lennon had long made his expatriate home. With penetrating lyrics by Taupin, who now rejoined John as regular collaborator once again, the song sports one of the singer's most moving melodies and devastating choruses of his entire career. Better elegies have rarely found their way into popular music, and the track still hits like an emotional head-on collision when heard three decades later.
Also from 1983's Too Low for Zero release, this upbeat tune became another significant pop hit and simultaneously made a strong statement that the perceived lull in John's career during the late '70s and early '80s was perhaps less than accurate. After all, at this point the singer had placed songs consistently on a variety of charts even if his critical reception had faded somewhat. Taupin's lyrical focus for this song just happens to match up well with a rather tumultuous period for John in both his personal and professional endeavors. The resulting portrayal of the singer as a survivor and an everyday fighter with which the listener can identify goes a long way toward taking this song to another level.
The Elton John of the '80s may not have hit home with all old fans or even contemporary audiences, but his work of that period certainly displayed an impressive consistency in chart performance and song quality. No one would argue that John's songwriting collaborations with Taupin would rival his '70s heyday, but at least one or two songs per album earned a permanence on pop music playlists. On this track from 1984's Breaking Hearts, John seemed to realize that wistful considerations of melancholia were appropriate in terms of subject matter, composing music that uncannily complemented the lyrical musings of a similarly maturing Taupin. This isn't John's greatest work, but it stands well above much thoughtful contemporary pop.