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Elton John's The Road to El Dorado.

I stopped buying Elton John albums when Bernie Taupin stopped writing the lyrics. That happened in 1978, when A Single Man hit stores. But Taupin soon returned--and so did I, now and again--for solid pop albums such as Too Low for Zero. Most recently John, Taupin, and I--the three of us all grown up now--came together again for The Big Picture, John's underappreciated 1997 studio album. Overshadowed by "Candle in the Wind 1997," the gazillion-selling Princess Diana tribute single, Picture was in fact a terrific collection of what has become John's signature in his post-rocker, post-closet years: mellifluous love songs and soaring ballads.

Unfortunately, Taupin is absent from John's two most recent projects. Instead, John's collaborator on Aida (the current Broadway show) and the new animated movie The Road to El Dorado is Tim Rice, who also collaborated with John for Disney's megasuccessful Lion King franchise. Sadly, it seems that whatever magic spun Rice's "Circle of Life" lyrics in 1994 has collapsed into creaky sleight of hand with El Dorado, a collection of 11 John-Rice songs written for the DreamWorks film plus two instrumental tracks by fellow Lion alum Hans Zimmer and one by John Powell, who teamed with Zimmer on the film's score.

Taupin is a lyricist in the Paul Simon mode--a master of succinct imagery, unforced emotion, and elliptically told tales perfectly suited to John's liquid melodies (think "Daniel" or "Sacrifice"). Rice, on the other hand, is a semantic mechanic, a wanna-be Howard Ashman (Beauty and the Beast) without Ashman's gift for quick wit and raucous rhyme. The grandiosity and bold strokes that propelled Rice's early successes (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita) have long faded, and the adolescent goofiness and wide-eyed awe that buoyed The Lion King has worn thin. On El Dorado Rice is reduced to patching together cliches (the first single is "Someday Out of the Blue"), reaching for laughs with groaner rhymes ("Just because we are Hispanic / Doesn't mean we're oceanic"), and piling on platitudes ("I love you, I love you without question I love you"). Only on "It's Tough to Be a God," a comic duet between John and Randy Newman, do Rice's verbal tricks find their proper level: utter frivolity.

As composer and singer, John soldiers on, selling damaged goods with conviction and aplomb. Indeed, if you can ignore the words, El Dorado at times seems the rediscovered golden-oldie paradise it's intended to be. "Friends Never Say Goodbye," for example--in part because its lyrics are short and simple--is classic late-period Elton: a touch of midlife longing set to a warm, melancholy melody; while the equally succinct "Queen of Cities" is a solid end-credits anthem.

Unlike most songwriters, John typically finds his music only after he's been given the words. Thirty years on, he's still a craftsman of the highest order, but he's no Rumpelstiltskin, and even he can't spin Rice's straw into oro. As for me, I'll hold on to my brand-new Sacajawea golden dollars until Taupin returns again.
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Author:Steele, Bruce C.
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Apr 25, 2000
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