Picks and Pans Review: Sleeping with the Past

updated 11/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Elton John

Whatever other faults John may have, deficiency of public ego isn't one of them. Nor is there any surplus humility oozing out of his longtime writing partner, Bernie Taupin—who now prefers to be known only as "Taupin," in apparent tribute to such other mononomic talents as Charo, Kreskin and Pluto.

These traits have not, of course, kept John and Taupin from creating some of the most popular—and best—pop music of the last 20 years. There's a lot more of it on this album, but the self-centeredness probably kept it from being something more spectacular than it is.

John and Taupin have described the album as their tribute to the R&B classics of the '60s—Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding and Co. It's probably within the bounds of creative eccentricity that they chose to go to Denmark, never known as a hotbed of soulfulness, to record the album. But it does seem peculiar that such a tribute album as this doesn't even include one or two cover versions of those R&B classics John is saluting.

Maybe Taupin was suggesting an answer to this criticism when he said about I Sleeping with the Past—"We've been maybe a little too versatile on a lot of our past albums. They've been so diverse musically, and we both felt it would be good to concentrate on just one style for this record. So if a song didn't fit in with the rest of the album, we'd discard it, no matter how good it was—and believe me, there were some great songs that just didn't make it onto the album."

If you say so, Taup. There are some terrific tunes: "The Club at the End of the Street," for instance, or "Stone's Throw from Hurtin'," which is unaccountably described as a salute to Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" (its opening lines, "Help me, Information/Get emotion on the line," sound a lot more like Chuck Berry).

There are also a number of songs that I do not make the word "great" come to mind however. "Durban Deep," an apparently well-meant tribute to black coal miners of South Africa, juxtaposes a bouncy rhythm with painful verbal images; "Healing Hands" seems at best routine: "I never knew it could hurt so bad/When the power of love is dead."

John and Taupin are still capable of strikingly compact lyrics, such as this from "Sacrifice": "Cold, cold heart/Hard done by you/Some things look better, baby/Just passin' through." They are versatile and anything but complacent. To make deflation the sincerest form of flattery, however, they are not the only two guys on this block. (MCA)

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