"Honky Château" has a lot of fans, and no wonder. It contains two of Elton's most enduring hits, the playful "Honky Cat" and the affectively yearning "Rocket Man," along with 8 other tracks that hardly sag by way of comparison. I revere this album because it represents Elton John at his poppy best, the way I came to love him on the radio when I was growing up in the 1970s. Other great songs like "Mellow," "Hercules," and "Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters" add to a rich blend of musical styles that make listening to the entire album a pleasant journey that never gets dull.
Listen to the way the piano kicks in on "Honky Cat," the opening track. Elton's keyboard passages bounce from one wall to another and back again in unpredictable but clever rhythmic patterns, while a banjo throws out odd notes to add to the mix. The aural dynamics continue with each of the songs that follow, never in a bombastic way, but a very accomplished and relaxed manner that testifies to Elton's zooming artistic growth.
Bernie Taupin's lyrics are funny and work either with or against the grain of the melody in each song in a way that adds to their signature diversity. "I Think I'm Going To Kill Myself" is a song that grabs attention for the wrong reason. It's actually about a self-dramatizing teen angry his parents won't let him use the car. His idea for suicide is laughable rather than horrific; he wants to hang around after he kills himself to see how everyone takes the bad news. If there's any lingering doubt about its seriousness, it's dispelled by the merry ragtime melody carrying it, complete with tap dancing. The song only works because the kid doesn't realize the gravity of what he's contemplating, because if he did he wouldn't be young and immature enough to think about doing it!
Elsewhere on the album are some of Taupin's most famous lines, about "trying to drink whiskey from a bottle of wine," "turn around and say good morning to the night," and most memorably, "Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids/In fact it's cold as hell." Man, did you think Taupin was writing that one about the street you were growing up on, too? Even when the lyrics are goofier, they still work, like his words to the nasty dreamwrecker "Amy": "You're far out, you're fab and insane/A woman of the world it's quite plain." Elton delivers that one with the right gravelly intonation, all sleazy and '70s glam, which along with the dire yet funky piano accompaniment makes "Amy" my call for Honky Chât's sleeper track.
The music is ultimately what makes the songs so good. Every song feels very unique, and none of it like filler. Filler is not a bad thing in and of itself; I define "filler" as being songs that either work or don't in the context of an album but not outside of it. But you can pull any one of these songs out on its own, and it won't wilt in isolation. "Slave" and "Salvation" may be my least favorite tracks, but both are solid tunes I can hum to myself days after last hearing them.
My favorite on this album has to be "Honky Cat," the sorta title track. I can listen to that forever. It really defines who Elton is on this album; carefree, amiable, willing to laugh at himself. I kind of picture him chained to a whorehouse piano playing that one, trying to make eye contact over his cokebottle glasses with all the wicked women because he wasn't out of the closet yet.
Other Elton albums may lay greater claim to being art, but this was Elton's best pop record, and his most enjoyable moment on wax. "Honky Château" is a gem worth having for your record collection.
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