Photo Credit: Gregg Kemp
Earlier this year, Elton John and Lil Nas X came together to collaborate on the song “One of Me” (they also came together to record an ad for Uber Eats; a disappointing exercise in corporatism by two stars who’ve become known for subversion, but that’s beside the point). The collaboration – which features on both star’s most recent albums – while perfectly respectable, is a highlight on neither. But such is largely irrelevant; the collaboration feels like a passing of the torch moment from one LGBTQ trailblazer to another. In a year where many of the ‘60s and ‘70s biggest musicians (Van Morrison, Eric Clapton) have shown their ideologies to be tragically antiquated, it’s refreshing to see that Elton remains every bit the revolutionary he started as.
Now with a record-breaking six-decade run of UK top 10s, the 74-year-old Elton has nothing left to prove. Appropriately, The Lockdown Sessions reads like a victory lap more than it does a cohesive artistic statement. Recorded between March of 2020 and September 2021, the album features a mixture of certified legends (Stevie Wonder, Eddie Vedder, Stevie Nicks), rising stars (Rina Sawayama, Brandi Carlile), and some of today’s biggest hitmakers (Dua Lipa, Miley Cyrus, Charlie Puth). If nothing else, Elton’s 32nd studio album is an ode to the simple joy and community that comes from making music.
The Lockdown Sessions is better viewed as a loose collection of songs recorded around the same time than it is as an album designed to be listened to front to back. Beyond their status as collaborative works, there is little else that binds together these alternately pop, country, rap, and rock songs and ballads. Unsurprisingly then, the quality of these songs is an equally mixed bag.
The album begins with UK chart-topper, Dua Lipa and PNUA collab “Cold Heart” – which reworks “Rocket Man” and other classics into something new. Even in the age of “Bad Guy”, “Old Town Road” and “WAP”, “Cold Heart” still feels like a particularly unlikely hit.
The Lockdown Sessions strikes gold when Elton teams up with singer-songwriters who share his burning passion for artistry and lyrical detail. On “Simple Things”, he finds a worthy partner in the modern-day country great Brandi Carlile – a phenomenal vocalist with an uncanny knack to make the timeless sound fresh and vibrant. Meanwhile, Rina Sawayama – who teams up with Elton for a remix of her song “Chosen Family” – most closely embodies the inclusive, yet radical, spirit of Elton. This sonically conventional, yet deeply affecting, ballad plays best to both’s strengths. Their collaboration on this ode to inclusivity (“We don’t need to be related to relate”, “You are, you are // My chosen family”) captures what music can be at its very best. For all the damp squibs – like Charlie Puth collab “After All” – that are dotted across the release, moments like this more than makeup for the low points; offering a poignant reminder of Elton John’s excellence.