Steve Nieve (Elvis Costello and the Attractions) Talks Elton John’s The Diving Board

One of my earliest memories of diving into the deep end was the first evening I went to a "youth club." In a dusty church hall, under colored mood...

One of my earliest memories of diving into the deep end was the first evening I went to a “youth club.” In a dusty church hall, under colored mood lighting, a couple of dozen teenagers hung out, hoping to meet “the one.” It was totally pathetic, but there was a powerful sound system, twin record decks, and blasting out of them was the most incredible music I had ever heard in my life. I failed to score my first girlfriend that night, but I did discover the insanely long intro, the mesmerizing sonic grace of “Funeral for a Friend.” The opening track of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, that’s where my journey with Elton John and his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin began.

And so I find Tim Barber’s photo on the cover of Elton John’s new album The Diving Board very fitting, although the title conjures forth many other evocative and unsettling images. Like Felix Baumgartner jumping from the weather satellite and re-entering the earth’s atmosphere like a human rocket man — the Vertigo, the feeling that there is no turning back — or like crowd-surfing, the artist putting all his trust in his audience, and launching himself out of the confines of his comfortable stage, off the springboard of transcendence. Many times on this beautiful, warm recording we hear an Elton we have never quite heard before. Both vocally and pianistically, this is the seemingly effortless work of a man at the height of his creative powers. Elton’s writing partner Bernie T. is also on an astonishing creative peak here, and the story that unravels during 13 songs and three instrumentals is as epic as a Kubrick movie.

I decided to take the album with me for my morning run. I was in deep French countryside, flat empty fields and huge open skies, nothing to distract and so the story unfolded before my ears and mind’s eye.

England, our sad, bittersweet motherland, Remembrance Sundays, red paper poppy pins. In “Oceans Away,” the words and music come together in a classic song on the same scale as a “Candle in the Wind,” almost the soliloquy of the last veteran at the final Remembrance Day. Elton plays piano and sings alone, just a harmony on the title line, and yet the track is enormous-sounding. Producer T-Bone Burnett cleverly puts the two main characters of this story, Elton’s voice and Elton’s piano, clearly in focus right at the start of the adventure.

“Oscar Wilde Gets Out,” a winding minor scale and a hollow drum: the rebel leaves prison and escapes the poisonous pens of Fleet Street, to Paris and then to New York, now dressed as a dandy prince. He leaves behind “the great indifference of the English,” a rare subject shared by my friend Elvis Costello in his “Jimmie Standing in the Rain.” So many of my English musical heroes find themselves better loved and understood on faraway shores. T-Bone has reinvented many of my musical mentors, adapted them to the Great Far West. The producer adds a special echo to the high pinkie finger note that Elton occasionally throws in, teasingly, and the drummer, who plays in an understated, but orchestral way, catches this and so as the piece evolves, this high note becomes a percussion of wood or bone. It’s a beautiful sinewy texture, glued together with a soft bowed-string orchestra. The song has a surprise structure: suddenly mayhem breaks out in an unexpected climax. “Don’t cry out loud/You never know who’s listening/You’ve seen it all, the exiled unforgiven/from the stately homes of England to her prisons.” And it continues as the song winds back on itself and concludes with a touch of remorse in this parting, as he thinks back to “the hardened lifers, the wretched poor, thinking maybe they were my saviors, strange to think I’ll miss them all.”

“A Town Called Jubilee” is the promise of a new life, where you will settle down and make things right. But it’s the wild west and things go awry, houses burn down, “That fire came out of nowhere/Short of what I can tell/Hand to hand we passed that bucket/Up and down from the well.” A gospel choir amplify the emotion of the chorus; occasionally Elton’s right hand rolls down the ivories in true New Orleans style, and there is a beautiful steel guitar with a Bowie-esque tone reminiscent of Elton’s pop past, but this is now strictly Americana.

The pace picks up further on the “The Ballad of Blind Tom.” Based on the true facts of Thomas Wiggins, an autistic slave who could play piano so good he made a lot of money for his white masters. Masterful lyrics from Bernie that surely resonate deep for Elton: “I didn’t choose this life for me, but it’s something that I want.” I love the one-note, chugging guitar, the suspension in the harmony under the swirling intro figures. I have listened to this record en boucle several times, and each time it goes ’round I’m discovering new details that I adore. Mellow horn sections, pads of gospel choirs, majestic, orchestral drumming. But none of these sublime touches ever deflect attention from Elton’s voice and piano. These are the central characters, and this is the end of the record’s Act One.

“Dream, Pt. 1” is the first of three elegant instrumental pieces that provide transitions in The Diving Board opera. The first has whispers of Poulenc and Debussy and pulls us back to the squalour of a poet’s life in Paris, legendary pool of a city; all the world dive in deep to swim inside its age-old inspiration.

Here comes a crooked ballad like Elton never sang before: “My Quicksand,” a song about a nemesis, delivered first like a jazz crooner and then, as the tension heightens, like an opera tenor. It is the beautiful vocal high point of the album. It has a fragility that I really love. The song begins with a descending melody that recalls a fine Michel Legrand theme from Jacques Demy’s 1970 film musical Peau D’Ane (Donkey Skin). I hear it repeated in several intros on this album. The text brings us back to Paris for a moment of poignant reflection, something so terrible, from which there is no escape. Like a demented slow tango, a heartbeat, a strictly straight funeral pulse, until the singer declares he’s going down — “You and me together going down/It’s not what I’d been told about this town/That when you least expect it you can drown.” And suddenly, the straight beat becomes a slow jazz swing, and Elton plays a solo, a great jazz piano solo; it comes at you from the least expected place, and it’s so fucking cool. And just when that’s knocking you out, he pulls another killer punch into his jazz improvisation on the theme from Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” How smart is that?

“Can’t Stay Alone Tonight” is a laid-back shuffle that will be purring out of car radios from Florida to Alaska. It’s a country AM radio classic: “You’re the diner in my rear-view, a cup of coffee getting cold.” I want to be driving a convertible down Sunset Boulevard. My feet pick up speed, I can feel the padded leather steering wheel in my hands.

“Voyeur,” I read somewhere, is a song that came from a second batch of sessions that delayed the release of The Diving Board and almost stole the title of this record. The intro figure hints at “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”: “I’m watching you/A voyeur from a different point of view/The solitary eyes that I’ve been looking through/Committed to connecting the old ways to the new.” It’s a couple, looking into their darkness, to hold onto their fleeting lightness.

After the ecologically minded “Take This Dirty Water,” with its gospel singers and handclaps defining a powerful, slow groove, and “Dream, Pt. 2,” with shades of Eric Satie’s “Gnossiennes,” decorated with broken chords of the Mississippi delta, there is Act Three, the end of a war: “The New Fever Waltz” is an amazing piece of cinematic songwriting. A couple are dancing on a hardwood floor, a man and a horse are tumbling on a battlefield. A cello and soft horns as Elton sings, “Wounded birds look to us/Who can heal, who to trust… Shaking with a fever before the white flag flew.” Amid, beautiful, rich bass, my mind flies, running with this waltz, through the debris. At the opposite end, “Mexican Vacation (Kids in the Candlelight)” is a rollicking celebration of liberty, salvation and transcendence featuring some brilliantly wayward rocking piano reminiscent of The Union, the 2010 album Elton made with Leon Russell.

“Dream, Pt. 3” has a discordant edge and military drum explosions; the dream is now a fully American music, like composer John Adams’ “John’s Book of Alleged Dances” or “Hoedown (Mad Cow)” from his Gnarly Buttons, or the open tunings of Joni Mitchell. I’m into the home stretch.

Now we are high on “The Diving Board” and Elton’s singing here reminds me of 
Nick Lowe on “Lover Don’t Go.” Mellow brass sustains the punctuated piano, as Elton sings, “And full of the world and its noise/But you beat the drum/You fell in love with it all/The planets alight, those dizzy heights, and the view from the diving board.” The lyric is wonderful poetry, brimming with reflection on the vertigo of stardom — “In your lily-white skin, high up on the diving board.” A fine tremelo guitar supports delicately.

The goodbye track “Candlelit Bedroom” is the cold, hard truth before the sun goes down. It’s a solemn hymn, faith in the light of love. I was hoping for a more Brit guitar solo, something a little less tasteful in note and tone, but no, T-Bone keeps a tight hand on the direction right up to the end, and it’s a very Californian guitar solo that takes me through my front gate and down the garden path back home. When my heart rate backs down I’d love to read the sleeve notes.

“Every waking moment you believe that love will always lead you to a better place.” One… two… three… dive.

Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Steve Nieve has been Elvis Costello’s keyboardist since the first note of the Attractions. Nieve has recorded several acclaimed solo albums, including Welcome to the Voice, the classical opera he co-wrote with Muriel Téodori, released on Deutsche Grammophon in 2007. “ToGetHer” — a song cycle — continues the spirit of collaboration and brings together for the first time Sting, Vanessa Paradis, Elvis Costello, Laurie Anderson, Robert Wyatt, Muriel Téodori, Tall Ulyss, Ron Sexsmith, Harper Simon, Joe Sumner, Cali, Alain Chamfort. Available via 429 Records. You can find him on Facebook here, Twitter here and his website here.  Photo credit: Muriel Téodori