“What a wonderful crazy night that was,” sings Elton John on the title track of his 33rd studio album — a song that is neither crazy nor, to be frank about it, wonderful. It’s a jaunty piece of piano-pop about a night of youthful abandon, a scenario that’s sketched — as is often the case when the lyrics are by Bernie Taupin — in a mystifying jumble of images. (There’s a “greasy breeze from the chicken stand,” which sounds like a mood killer, but to each his own.) John does his best to infuse “Wonderful Crazy Night” with some giddiness, but the song refuses to get going — it lumbers and sputters.
The same is true of many of the songs on this album of the same name. It’s John’s third consecutive collaboration with producer T Bone Burnett, the man musicians turn to for elegantly made recordings foregrounding traditional pop-rock instrumentation. Burnett is a great producer, and he has brought the right touch to John’s last two LPs, The Union (2010), a genial summit meeting with Leon Russell, and the subdued The Diving Board (2013). On the new set, though, John is aiming for something bigger and more vivacious. He’s reunited with longtime sidemen, like drummer Nigel Olsson, for songs with meaty 1970s AM-rock arrangements. It sounds good on paper, but the album unfolds as an undifferentiated wash of music, without the big toothsome melodies that have lifted John’s music for decades.
It seems unfair to blame a producer when the source material isn’t up to snuff. But you can’t shake the suspicion that Wonderful Crazy Night might have benefited from a more gonzo presence behind the mixing desk. John is aiming to revive the style of albums like Honky Cat (1972), but those records had an outlandishness, a blend of earnest schlock and winking camp, that is beyond the ken of a classy roots-rock whisperer like Burnett. Take the album-closing ballad, “The Open Chord.” The song is dusted with the old John-Taupin magic: a charmingly crackpot lyric full of mixed metaphors (“You’re an open chord I wanna play all day/A new broom sweeping up the scenes I no longer play”), and a shapely chorus that John should by rights blast out like a Broadway showstopper. Instead, he delivers it subtly, demurely, tastefully. Where’s the fun — where’s the crazy — in that?