Elton John and Leon Russell: The Union – review

Elton's gospel-tinged team-up with pop legend Leon Russell is a credit to them both, says Alexis Petridis

It was easy to miss Leon Russell's cameo appearance on last Saturday's X Factor, dedicated to songs by the judges' musical heroes. For one thing, his name wasn't mentioned. For another, it was hard not to be distracted by news that Simon Cowell's musical heroes apparently include Kelly Clarkson and Boney M; here was a pretty jaw-dropping insight into his record collection. Mind whirling with the thought of what an all-back-to-mine listening session round Simon Cowell's might entail – you rather picture him sagely announcing he's going to hit you with an obscure old-school dance classic ("this one's strictly for the heads") then playing the Grease Megamix – it was easy for even the most knowledgeable music fan to overlook Russell's contribution to the evening: much fuss was made about the emotional power and loveliness of A Song for You, performed by John Adeleye, but no one credited the 68-year-old Oklahoman who wrote it in 1970.

You could argue that's Leon Russell's current standing all over. Some of his songs are enshrined not merely within the pantheon of classics, but among the stuff known even by people whose only interaction with music comes via Magic FM – he also co-wrote the Carpenters' exquisite Superstar – but hardly anyone associates them with him. It's hard to name another figure who once seemed so central to the rock aristocracy – performing with George Harrison and Eric Clapton, helming Joe Cocker's ascent to superstardom, his songs covered by Bob Dylan and Ray Charles – who has vanished so completely from the public consciousness, a victim of bad business deals, changing times and his own reticence.

In recent years, you could find Russell playing some pretty unprepossessing-sounding venues: The Snail Pie Lounge, Glenville; The Snorty Horse Saloon, Springfield; the Safeway National Barbeque Championships. Enter Elton John, who, while Russell has been busy rocking Gater's Sports Bar and Grill, Gun Barrel City, has been engaged in a clearly heartfelt and largely successful attempt to claw back his own musical credibility. There have been well-reviewed back-to-basics albums, relentless patronage of young artists – it sometimes feels as if no group of teenagers stumbling through Wild Thing in a garage is safe from Sir Elton bursting in and telling them what an inspiration they are to him – and now a chance to rescue an old hero from the environs of the Hog Pit Pub, Midland.

John has audibly taken to the task with relish: "You came like an invasion, all bells and whistles blowing," he sings at his new collaborator on Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes. "Your songs have all the hooks, you're seven wonders rolled into one." If it's touching to hear one of the most successful artists of all time momentarily reduced to gasping fanboy, the album works because it feels like a partnership, rather than an indulgence on John's part or an act of gratitude on Russell's. The sound – gospel-infused blues and country – tends more obviously towards the latter's style than the former's, although, in fairness, it's not that far removed from the pre-glam John of 1970's Tumbleweed Connection. Moreover, the stellar guestlist, including Bono and Brian Wilson, clearly has its roots in John's address book, and there are moments when the melodies could no more obviously be his if they turned up in a pair of sunglasses with windscreen wipers on them. As a result, The Union finally succeeds in doing what John has been tentatively pushing towards for the last decade, stripping his music of the glitzy sheen that's built up over 40 years and often threatened to consume it entirely: nothing here sounds like it could be extravagantly staged by David LaChapelle.

In place of the flamboyance and glitter, there are homages to Stax soul (I Should Have Sent Roses) and The Band (Gone to Shiloh); an eeriness that's bound up with Russell's weathered, drawling voice; dark intimations of mortality – There's No Tomorrow borrows its funeral tone and tune from the Mighty Hannibal's dirge-like 1966 single Hymn No 5 – and the encroaching twilight of their careers on The Best Part of the Day. The latter, full of show-must-go-onisms, sounds rather hokey in theory: in practice, there's something moving about hearing two artists who've enjoyed wildly differing fortunes coming to the same conclusion.

It's fair to say that not many people come to an Elton John album looking for death and eeriness: you do wonder what the people who pay to see him sing The Bitch Is Back next to a inflatable banana that looks like a willy will make of it, and what resuscitating effect it might have on Russell's career – not enough to catapult him to the attention of The X Factor crowd and supplant Boney M in Simon Cowell's affections, perhaps, but enough to ensure the Snorty Horse Saloon is but a memory for the foreseeable future. On those terms – and indeed on any others you'd care to mention – The Union is quite a triumph.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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