Elton John could’ve easily taken a breather after putting his Farewell Yellow Brick Road retirement tour on pause due to the pandemic. At this point in his career, he has nothing else to prove, musically or otherwise. However, the icon instead was downright busy, emerging from this break with a collection of 16 collaborative tracks, “The Lockdown Sessions,” documenting the last 18 months of activity.
Even for a notorious sonic shapeshifter like John, the album is wildly eclectic, with a variety of duets encompassing metal power ballads, pulsating disco throwbacks, laid-back hip-hop, and brittle pop gems. It’s easy to be cynical about collections like these — or dismiss them as representing a veteran artist looking to stay relevant in the pop marketplace — but John’s open-hearted vocals and sincerity make “The Lockdown Sessions” a charming listen.
To be fair, perhaps this set sounds so refreshed because John did spend the initial part of lockdown, at least, kicking back and relaxing. (In the album’s bio, he revealed he watched “Tiger King” and had epic games of snakes and ladders with his kids.) More saliently, he took a break from being Elton John: Not only was he off the road, but he didn’t touch the stack of Bernie Taupin lyrics that were waiting for him to add musical accompaniment. Instead, John let his calendar fill up with other people’s projects. Among other things, he contributed piano and vocals to Lil Nas X’s vulnerable “One of Me” and Gorillaz’s syrupy “The Pink Phantom,” and performed a stunning one-off cover of Pet Shop Boys’ ‘It’s a Sin” with Years and Years’ Olly Alexander on the Brit Awards (all of which reappear on “Lockdown Sessions.”
John has likened this prolific period to his very early career days in the ’60s, when he was working as a session man for the likes of the Hollies and Tom Jones; for him, hopscotching from artist to artist and genre to genre on the new album wasn’t chaotic, but instead brought welcome familiarity: “I’d come full circle,” he’s said. “I was a session musician again.” So you can understand why John sounds so much more comfortable collaborating with modern artists than many of his peers do.
“The Lockdown Sessions” kicks off with the glacial UK No. 1 single “Cold Heart (Pnau Remix),” a chic disco-pop duet with Dua Lipa that interpolates lyrics from “Rocket Man” and a lesser-known trio of select John catalog songs: 1976’s “Where’s the Shoorah?,” 1983’s “Kiss the Bride” and 1989’s “Sacrifice.” The end result is relentlessly modern, a seamless (and savvy) mashup of eras.
The same retro cool permeates the raucous Eddie Vedder collaboration “E-Ticket,” which gives off rock-heavy, bar-boogie “The Bitch Is Back” vibes, and the ’70s dancefloor buzz of the SG Lewis-featuring “Orbit.” More impressively, John also embraces modern arrangement choices, which emphasize streaming-friendly, concise melodic elements. On “Always Love You,” he cedes the spotlight to rappers Young Thug and Nicki Minaj, content instead to serve up the catchiest (if most bittersweet) vocal hook on the record: “I will always love you / Even when I say I don’t.”
But the album’s highlights occur when John and his creative foils are on more equal footing. This shouldn’t be surprising, as his career has always flourished within a framework of collaboration. There’s his decades-long partnership with Taupin, of course, and the fact that several members of his live band are also long-time associates. Drummer/vocalist Nigel Olsson was part of John’s original touring trio, while guitarist/vocalist Davey Johnstone has been linked with John since 1972’s “Honky Château.”
Brandi Carlile, who’s long been open about John’s influence on her career, sounds warm and engaged on “Simple Things,” a rich, rootsy song tinted by folk and gospel and John imparting some hard-won wisdom: “What you’ll find chasing dreams / Is the finish line recedes / And the riddle stays a riddle.” The heartfelt piano ballad “Chosen Family,” with the British pop star Rina Sawayama, is another standout; it’s an unadorned song about finding your place in the world when you’ve long felt alone: “Hand me a pen and I’ll rewrite the pain / When you’re ready, we’ll turn the page together.” And a pair of duets with younger male artists — the lush, ’80s R&B/pop-inspired “After All” with crooner Charlie Puth, and the bubbly electro-pop song “Beauty in the Bones” with country upstart Jimmie Allen — are compelling vocal showcases for all parties involved.
“The Lockdown Sessions” can sometimes be too eclectic for its own good — less like a John album and more like a mixtape overflowing with too many ideas. On a smoldering cover of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters,” Miley Cyrus’ smoky, powerful vocals overshadow the song’s more delicate coda, featuring John’s classical-infused piano intertwined with an elegiac part from cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Surfaces’ “Learn to Fly” is a pleasant if generic bit of twinkling soul-pop.
And it’s more than a little disorienting that “Lockdown Sessions” ends with a new take on Glen Campbell’s Grammy-winning 2014 single “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” The Alzheimer’s disease-themed song itself is now a reflective duet, with John singing some of the somber lyrics (“I’ve never gonna hold you like I did / Or say, ‘I love you’ to the kids”) originally handled by Campbell, who reappears posthumously here, four years after his death. The rest of the album feels vibrant and urgent, with an undercurrent of joy and exuberance; going out on a somber ballad shared with a deceased country legend who was singing about his slow decline makes for an odd vibe mismatch.
Still, “The Lockdown Sessions” overall is enjoyable, not just as a snapshot of a topsy-turvy time period, but a testament to the ways creativity and personal connection can sustain during darker moments.