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Too Low for Zero marks the reunion of Elton John with lyricist Bernie Taupin after a seven-year period of working with various other writers, and sees John's music advance to the breezy, stately tunes that characterise his later period. The change is thematic too, so he deals with 'the biggies' of religion and complicated relationships rather than the rather more intense character-led works of previous records. In truth, this yields some mixed results in terms of how relatable the songs are to anyone raised remembering when rock was young, but the whole is a rewarding, sometimes remarkable work.
He begins with one of those more personal works, though. Cold as Christmas (In the Middle of the Year) is a terribly sad portrait of marital decay, told through relayed phone calls and accompanied by John's piano at its gloopiest - basically, it's textbook stuff. Those bigger ideas begin to seep through as we reach the middle of the record - Religion may be told from a singular perspective, but it's a lofty attempt to show inconsistencies in one of pop's more difficult areas to traverse. A rollicking stomp it may be, but it probably takes longer than the song's four minutes to unpick the issue (though John made his feelings clear in a 2006 interview when he suggested religion be banned altogether).
Most notably, this often-belting record spawned two of Elton John's biggest and best singles, I'm Still Standing and I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues. The first of those forms an umbrella for the album's themes: Elton's back, and stronger than ever (at least in intent). Indeed, the rockers on this record are among his very best - the Bowie-esque friskiness of Crystal and the double-whammy of Kiss the Bride and Whipping Boy are all exemplary, unfussy workouts. I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues forms another main thematic device, of epic relationship worries, but is by far the strongest example thanks to its casual sense of regret, of a genuine ache to be with his lover.
Falsetto on the concluding One More Arrow shows John portraying vulnerability with affecting ease, and brings to a close a fine record - exactly when he needed one. He may have released better works overall in the 70s, but with Taupin back on board Too Low for Zero is still a winner. Thoroughly entertaining throughout, and the return to form Elton John required.