The Union is another milestone album in Elton John's career. But more than that, it's him finally collaborating with his hero, Leon Russell, an underrated artist who was left buried in the footnotes of music history. Like David Fricke mentioned in his 5-star review in Rolling Stone, "The Union is a rare gesture in a dying business: an act of gratitude." Right from the start, Russell has been Elton's most direct influence, in terms of piano playing and singing style. This album was produced by T-Bone Burnett, who already has four albums under his belt this year alone. Most of the songs were written by Elton and longtime partner Bernie Taupin. But it's also a very collaborative effort, and on some songs writing credits go to Bernie and Leon, Elton and Leon and both of them with T-Bone.
All the sixteen songs here are truly remarkable on every level. The backing band contains some renowned musicians, including Booker T. on organ and Jim Keltner on drums. Elton and Leon play each other off beautifully, and you can just picture both of them in the studio facing and directly singing to each other. The album starts off with Leon on vocals (who sounds strikingly similar to Willie Nelson) with the catchy If It Wasn't For Bad, that has some great piano fill-ins between verses. And then Elton John takes lead in the ballad Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes, which is obviously about his idol. He goes back to his roots with songs like Hey Ahab and Monkey Suit, in which you're immediately reminded of his early 70's work. Gone To Shiloh is a haunting Civil War tune (featuring Neil Young on vocals) reminiscent of his classic My Father's Gun. And if you listening carefully on When Love Is Dying, you can hear Brian Wilson in the background. The album ends appropriately with Leon again taking lead, with the autobiographical gospel In The Hands Of Angels, giving thanks to the man upstairs, for still being able to do what he does best.
Now is the time to find old Leon Russell songs. Choosing the album of the year just got harder!