When musicians of a certain age collaborate on a duets album, the results often reek of creative stagnation and the sound of mutual back-slapping. Not so with The Union, a sincere collaboration between Elton John and an artist to whom he owes an avowed debt, Leon Russell.
Their relationship stretches back 40 years, to when Russell attended Elton's (calling him 'John' feels wrong) first US solo show. A veteran session player for legends such as Phil Spector and Bob Dylan, by 1970 Russell was an established solo star and bandleader for Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. His raspy fusion of piano-based gospel, blues, country, rock and pop influenced Elton's breakthrough albums.
Since engineering a return to his earlier sound with 2001's Songs from the West Coast, Elton has focused on restoring his reputation as a craftsman of ersatz Americana. Working alongside Russell - making his first major label recording in a decade - brings him full circle.
Recorded live in the studio with acclaimed producer T Bone Burnett, the album radiates a kind of arid warmth; two old timers trading hard-won lessons in the dying sunlight. Burnett's barebones arrangements are garnished only with a ten-piece gospel choir and a barely noticeable choral arrangement from Brian Wilson on the melancholy When Love is Dying.
Elton and Russell's vocals and piano playing complement each other, neither overcooking the stew. The timbre of their voices is so similar it's often difficult to tell them apart. They don't harmonise, they duet, swapping chops and verses conversationally, Russell supplying hoodoo trills to Elton's country honk.
Most of the songs are written by Elton and long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin, with occasional contributions from Russell and Burnett. Russell's funky fingerprints are legible on the Stones-clad boogie of Monkey Suit and the antsy stomp of Hey Ahab. Other standouts include the funereal gospel of There's No Tomorrow, the unabashed train-whistle rockabilly, A Dream Come True, and the haunting, Band-esque Gone to Shiloh, a Civil War lament featuring a vocal cameo from Neil Young.
But the strength of these tracks highlights the album's weaknesses: too many mid-tempo ballads, too many generic melodies. At 14 tracks stretched just over an hour, it's simply too long; shorn of its more forgettable songs, it could've been a glancing contender.
As it stands, The Union is a blot on neither man's legacy, just a mature bout with flashes of former glory.