Elton John & Leon Russell’s The Union: Partnership, Not Death
January 12, 2011 at 11:08 pm, by Jonah Rank
I was not in love with it the first time I listened, but The Union has grown on me.
It’s both Elton John’s and Leon Russell’s first album in about 4 years, and I came in with the expectations of a CD full of pretty weak songs from two old guys trying too hard to be young and full of rock & roll. My initial response to the CD was that it’s decent. But, the other day, I began to understand it better. The opening track “If It Wasn’t For Bad” automatically started playing (The Union came up in iTunes right after Dave Matthews Band’s Under the Table and Dreaming) and my first thought was “God! What is this song? That’s a gorgeous intro!” The intro has an old-time feel of “Here comes a classic honky-tonk rag!” but what follows is the sound of classic rock, yet rocking only lightly and with a heavy sense of nostalgia that is aware of the lyrics’ tendency towards melodrama and corniness (“If it wasn’t for you, I’d be happy. / If it wasn’t for lies, you’d be true. / I know that you could be just like you should. / If it wasn’t for bad, you’d be good.”).
These words might look silly on paper today, but no fan of Leon Russell would have considered these binary-opposite lyrics to be stupid in the 70s when Russell’s voice was just slightly stronger. Opposite-words might be inane, but they’ve been popular for a long time. In the 60s, the Beatles sang, “Hello Goodbye,” and these days Katy Perry is singing “Hot N Cold.” It seems like, when you’re younger, you’re less likely to get criticized for being simple in the name of rock and roll.
So, what happens when you’re older, but your job is still rock and roll? You might be aware of how The Wall Street Journal recently published a punchy article recommending retirement for these guys, but I say it’s not that simple. In fact, some late CDs are, in my opinion, among some artists’ best CDs: just to name a few, Bob Dylan’s Love & Theft from 2001, Paul McCartney’s Chaos & Creation In the Backyard from 2005, Randy Newman’s Harps & Angels from 2008, and Elton John’s Songs From the West Coast from 2000. Of course, the great late releases are the exceptions—not the rule. So, we’re still left with the problem of old rockers: what can they do to keep on rocking?
This was precisely Elton John’s question—not about himself (Elton still packs stadiums), but he asked this about Leon Russell. The story: Elton John got mad after an interview during which he realized that lots of young people haven’t heard of Leon Russell and don’t know his music, Elton suggested that Leon Russell and he record an album together, and then they did.
When I first listened to The Union about a month ago, I was surprised that there were so few songs that attempt to rock hard (I’d say maybe 4 out of the 14 songs aren’t slow). You might expect that at least the one song on the album featuring Neil Young (“Gone To Shiloh”) might be an intense rock song, but it’s also a pretty straightforward ballad. The Union is chockfull of slower songs and thinner walls of sound. Neither Elton nor Leon took advantage of the CD to mislead youngings into believing that either artist is as popular among teens today as Katy Perry. At first I was disappointed by this non-aggressive approach (after all, what is rock and roll without aggression?). But I’m thinking now that there’s something a little more mature and composed about the state of these aged rockers.
The second-to-last song on The Union, comes from Elton John (age 72) and his longtime collaborator lyricist Bernie Taupin (69). “Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody)” is a slow but inspiring piece of advice to an old folk with teetering ambition (“Don’t abandon the light. / Don’t step away. / Don’t give up that tune / That you never could play… You’re never too old to hold somebody.”). For Leon Russell (age 78), it is not too late to hold onto, or to take hold of, a friendship that can open up another opportunity in life.
The CD concludes with Russell’s “In the Hands of Angels,” in which the eldest of the duo sings, “I could have been sick. I could have died / I could have given up and not tried / To make it to tomorrow… But there was a brand new start, / And suddenly I was taken / New and far away places… / It was a whole new race / When I woke on that first day. / There was nothing I could say. / I was in the hands of angels.”
Both full of talent and both long past those moments in their careers when they made it big—two legendary artists stood together at a crossroads. It is not clear entirely what the phrase means, but the Babylonian Talmud recalls a millennia-old saying that—even though it might not have been Jewish in origin—was preserved by Jewish writings: o chevruta o mituta (“either partnership or death”). What exactly the phrase meant the first time it was said is unclear, and much has been said about it, but, most ways you look at it, these four words can be very powerful.
It seems to me that both Elton and Leon see themselves in the position of o chevruta o mituta: they can either partner up and have a good time together, or just prepare to die alone. Modern Hebrew has the phrase “la’asot chayyim,” which means “to have a good time” but literally means “to make life.” Instead of choosing mituta (death), they chose la’asot chayyim. They chose chevruta (partnership). They chose The Union.
I hope, and honestly doubt, that this will be the last album of either artist, but it’s a pretty touching way to acknowledge that their careers have been a good, long run. With releasing this last record, they’ve successfully avoided the psyche that Randy Newman describes in a song about aging rockers (himself included), “I’m Dead,” frequently subtitled “(But I Don’t Know It).” Leon and Elton aren’t dead. They’re very much alive. And they know exactly where they are in life.
This album does not bring out the synth-pop and try to steal away Katy Perry’s fans. It’s a sweet collection of new songs for Elton’s and Leon’s tried and true fans. Given the choice of o chevruta o mituta, Leon and Elton chose chevruta. They’ve still got some great time ahead of them and some great music to give us. I’m glad they got together and chose la’asot chayyim.
Tags: Aging, Angels, Bob Dylan, Chaos and Creation In the Backyard, Chayyim, Chevruta, Collaboration, Dave Matthews Band, death, Elton John, Friendship, Gone To Shiloh, Harps & Angels, Heaven, Hello Goodbye, Hot N Cold, If It Wasn't For Bad, In The Hands of Angels, I’m Dead, Katy Perry, Leon Russell, Love & Theft, Neil Young, Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody), O Chevruta o mituta, Partnership, Paul McCartney, Randy Newman, Songs From the West Coast, The Beatles, The Union, The Wall Street Journal, Under the Table and Dreaming, או חברותא או מיתותא, חברותא, חיים, לעשות חיים