No Bitching That He’s Back: An Expansive Box Set Shines Light on Elton John’s Fabled Early and Middle Career

Elton John | Jewel Box | (UMG)
Four and a half out of Five Stars

Call him what you will — a master showman, a remarkable singer/songwriter, a dedicated humanitarian, or simply an all-round entertainer — Elton John has never done anything in a modest way. That’s been true throughout the bulk of his 50 plus year career, even when he posed himself in the humble guise of an unassuming balladeer. Whether serving up sensitive ballads, full-flight rock and roll, or the radio-ready pop that’s made such a profound impression on playlists worldwide, John has established an oversized template that’s elevated him into the upper tier of absolute superstardom.

It’s no surprise, then, that this newly released eight CD box set, immodestly titled Jewel Box, continues to underscore that sense of extravagance that’s marked John’s career since early on. With two discs boasting B sides from the years 1976 to 2005, three discs worth of rarities, unreleased recordings, demos and older obscure offerings and three more filled with his own personal favorites and under appreciated album tracks, it’s a treasure trove for both the true Elton aficionado and those that consider themselves obsessive collectors as well. With each of the CDs housed in a lavish hardcover book and featuring running comments and commentary by the artist himself, it also serves as a long-awaited follow-up to John’s first expansive career collection, 1990’s To Be Continued.

Granted, the casual fan will likely want to weigh the option of skipping this set and opting instead for one of the many greatest hits packages that have appeared sporadically over the past  several decades, the most recent of which, Diamonds, having appeared  in 2017. Still, price aside, the opportunity to acquire the budding Elton and Bernie songwriting team’s early demos in seminal piano/vocal form allows for invaluable insight into the duo’s nascent composing career. One offering of particular interest arrive in the form of 1965’s semi-jazzy “Come Back Baby,” which happens to be the very first song Elton ever wrote and recorded. Others offer previews of songs that must have sounded promising at the time, but ultimately never evolved to full fruition. (One of the few exceptions is a striking, appropriately stripped-down version of “Madman Across the Water”) It’s said that the great majority of these tracks were stashed away in the vaults for decades, a fact that should prompt added attention that this box assuredly deserves. Not surprisingly, some of these songs inevitably sound dated, but the fact that they providing an insider’s glimpse into John’s ongoing evolution as a tunesmith makes them remarkably fascinating nonetheless.

Notably, John’s B sides sometimes rivaled the single sides that they accompanied, and yet only the most dedicated devotee may even be aware of some of them. Still, “Lonely Boy,” “Peter’s Song,” “Billy and The Kids,” “Fools in Fashion,” “The Retreat,” and “A Simple Man” could have found an ideal fit on any of his early albums, which offers another testament to his proficiency and prowess. Happily, there’s no diminished quality even despite their secondary stature.

Of course, those already saturated by the wealth of Elton offerings over the last few years — most prominent among them, the highly acclaimed bio pic “Rocket Man” and his well-received memoir “Me” — the suitably opulent Jewel Case could prove somewhat overwhelming. Elton’s own picks tend to be lesser- known tunes that pale compared to his standout selections. Likewise, the disc titled And This Is Me,which culls songs from those name-checked in his bio — “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” his Academy Award winning duet with “Rocket Man” star Taron Egerton being an obvious choice — also boasts several deep cuts (“I Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself,” “My Father’s Gun,” “Lady Samantha,” “Empty Sky,” and “All the Nasties”) along with a handful of hits (“Philadelphia Freedom,” “Border Song”) and some otherwise obscure entries that provide added interest.

In the end, Jewel Box is a lot to sift through, but ultimately it’s well worth the effort. Go through the couch cushions and save up some coin. Elton’s jewels provide a worthy cache indeed.

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