Ranking the Top 5 Songs on Elton John’s 1971 Tour de Force ‘Madman Across the Water’

Elton John couldn’t go wrong throughout much of the ’70s, releasing consistently excellent albums and singles at a feverish pace. In fact, it can be tempting to look at an album like Madman Across the Water from 1971 and consider it just another in a great line.

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But this album deserves special recognition for making it onto a very short list competing for John’s best-ever LP. In fact, we’d put it toe-to-toe with Goodbye Yellow Brick Road for the top spot. And these five stellar songs are a big part of the reason why.

5. “Razor Face”

John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin developed a deep love for the music of The Band and their particular brand of Americana. (The title of the next song on this list provides some evidence of this obsession.) With “Razor Face,” it seems like both men did their best to pay their homage. The titular character certainly seems like the kind of unsung folk that Robbie Robertson loved to immortalize. But it’s the music where The Band vibes certainly come on strong, thanks to outstanding work from organist Rick Wakeman and accordionist Jack Emblow.

4. “Levon”

Taupin and John took the first name from Levon Helm, but that’s where the similarities end. From there, they concocted an odd but affecting little tale of a father with an unusual profession and a son whose aspirations are much greater. They coax a great deal of pathos out of this, especially when the string arrangement of Paul Buckmaster comes into the picture. The details of the story could have been played for laughs, but that would have sunk this thing. Instead, John’s impassioned vocals lend the tale dignity, even majesty.

3. “All the Nasties”

Because they did it for so long and for so well, we take for granted the songwriting partnership of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. But it is quite amazing, when you think about it, to consider how fully John inhabited Taupin’s words and, transversely, how Taupin was able to put words into John’s mouth that seemed so apropos. That comes into play on “All the Nasties,” which if you didn’t know any better, would feel like John digging deep into his insecurities and trying to reconcile his public image with who he was inside, rather than him simply interpreting the words of another.

2. “Tiny Dancer”

In many ways, Madman Across the Water was John and Taupin’s way of paying tribute to America, not just for how the country took them in and made them beloved even before that occurred in the UK, but also because the two loved what the country had to offer. That included groupies. Taupin’s lyrics on “Tiny Dancer” showed them respect and even a kind of awe at their healing powers. John delivers one of his most potent vocals on the song, while his cascading piano chords slot in between Paul Buckmaster’s soaring strings in marvelous fashion.

1. “Madman Across the Water”

This song gets overlooked a bit because it wasn’t a hit single, but it’s undoubtedly one of the finest achievements of John’s recording career. His ability to bring this character to life in almost harrowing fashion shouldn’t be underestimated. Taupin’s lyrics are winningly disjointed, as a kind of frenzy keeps encroaching on this guy’s attempts at normality. What a fantastic studio creation as well, with the instrumental parts all standing out, even while still leaving enough space for the atmosphere to set in. Add it all up, and it evokes a man on the run from his demons in startlingly efficient fashion.

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