If you ended up stuck at home for a good chunk of 2020, you might have gone to drastic measures to keep your sanity intact. You might have taken up crochet, gotten really into sourdough or puzzles or houseplants, or if you were Elton John, invited several of your most successful and famous friends to collaborate on what would become The Lockdown Sessions (★★★☆☆).
Having this much star power together in one place has made for an eclectic series of offerings. The PNAU remix of “Cold Heart” with Dua Lipa that dropped earlier this month has already topped several charts and might be best experienced alongside its trippy music video incorporating 2D and stop-motion animation. Without the cute animated avatar of John dancing around with Lipa, it could be mistaken for a Lipa cover that he just happened to contribute to. The song is fun and an odd departure for John, but as a dance remix it is far more in Lipa’s comfort zone and John seems happy to give her the spotlight.
While he gets away with it, it pays off well, but unfortunately his foray into soft R&B with “Always Love You” alongside Young Thug and Nicki Minaj sounds a bit like three songs that were mashed together over a beat and piano without much care for how they would work together. Rina Swayama’s vocals on “Chosen Family” are a highlight, and she and John work well together, but the lyrics are uncomfortably saccharine and its slow build works against it, gradually overwhelming the vocals until the production drowns out the two of them.
That’s not to say John doesn’t manage to get “more is more” right elsewhere. John and Olly Alexander are both on top of their game on the intense, maximalist take on the Pet Shop Boys classic “It’s a Sin.” He also nails the bigness with a cover of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters,” featuring Miley Cyrus, Robert Trujillo, Chad Smith, and Yo-Yo Ma, mashing together cello, growling rock vocals, electric guitar, dramatic piano, and synths into a track that is entirely too much and incredible as a result. But one of the best tracks might be “Stolen Car,” where Stevie Nicks shines, bringing her quintessential Stevie-ness to a soaring breakup anthem that all but comes with its own pyrotechnics.
Stepping a little outside of his wheelhouse tends to pay off as well. Hearing Elton John sing with a twang in his voice alongside Brandi Carlile in “Simple Things” is a delight. Carlile makes it her own and he sounds nothing but happy to be along for the ride. “Finish Line” marks the first time he has recorded with Stevie Wonder since 1985, and with its rocking gospel-ish sensibility it sounds in some ways like a relic of an even earlier time in their careers. The cherry on top is knowing it’s Wonder himself on the harmonica.
Between John’s lockdown restlessness and his enviable access to a huge, diverse pool of top industry talent, this collab album was always going to be intensely varied. This time that internal diversity has resulted in a somewhat uneven result, with a few fun moments and a couple of real standouts, but a handful that could have been better thought out. Those moments where it does succeed are the ones that make use of his guests’ particular talents and idiosyncrasies. Had it been applied evenly, that approach could have resulted in one of John’s best records in years.
The Lockdown Sessions is available everywhere in physical and digital formats starting Oct. 22. Visit www.eltonjohn.com.
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