I was speeding along a snowy freeway recently when "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" came on the radio and I had to pull over to wipe away the tears. That song, like most of Elton John's, owes its lyrics to Bernie Taupin, but John cries out each line as if he's reading them from the pages of his own tear-stained diary.
John and Taupin have had a strange magic together for almost 30 years now, through hit after hit, including the recent popular vote for "Candle in the Wind" as requiem for a fallen princess even before Taupin rewrote the lyrics. Though I didn't find "Candle in the Wind" (which includes the line "Marilyn was found in the nude") or piles of stuffed animals appropriate grieving for dead royalty, I still can't resist singing along with the John/Taupin hits sprinkled throughout oldies radio playlists. I've always wondered why Taupin remained in John's shadow -- faithful lapdog scribbling out funeral poems at the 11th hour. Taupin's new CD with his side project, the Farmdogs, does much to answer this question.
It's not so much that the Farmdogs are without talent, but that their songs seem forced. Taupin may actually be trying too hard, stretching his writer's muscle until it snaps. There's the bad love song ("I've been cheated like a snake out of his skin"), the party song ("When there's whiskey in the bathtub, the cruel become kind"), the running-from-the-law song ("Who's the bastard coulda done this to his wife and kids?"), even the field-hand song ("pesticides sting my eyes/burn my callused hands"). In the end, I believe none of it. From migrant Mexican worker (Taupin actually sings in Spanish) to swaggering tough ("gotta walk in Harlem/learned to bite my tongue"), it all comes off more like writing exercises than heartfelt expression. But the writing here is really no worse than what Taupin's done for Elton John -- it's just missing John's convincing voice, his engaging sense of melody, his inventive arrangements.
The Farmdogs' sound is rootsy and all-too-familiar. Acoustic guitars strum appropriately under twangy solos while banjo and Dobro make guest appearances exactly where expected. Taupin's weak vocals strive for a honky-blues delivery but end up wavering between pinched sharp and falling flat. After the third or fourth predictable drum fill, the fifth or sixth tambourine stinger and the endlessly repeated choruses that create not a second of real drama, the end result hangs somewhere in the gray mist far below the Traveling Wilburys. The music isn't so much bad as it is uninspired, unoriginal.
I could forgive all if only the lyrics transported. Leonard Cohen songs sometimes drone on like an old refrigerator, but lines like "As a falling leaf may rest/A moment on the air/So your head upon my breast/So my hand in your hair" make me dizzy. Taupin's hackneyed images never approach such sensual elegance.
"Bird of Prey" is the only song Taupin offers that rings emotionally true. But, jeez, what's he getting at here? "How can you sleep at night," he sings, none-too-subtly alluding to John Lennon's "How Do You Sleep," in which the ex-Beatle lashed out at Paul McCartney. But while Lennon's crybaby rant soars with serious '70s funk, Taupin's drip-drops along like the rest of the album -- mid-tempo, unassuming. Maybe the song's about Elton John, maybe not. Either way, Bernie, don't quit your day job.