So the story goes like this. Inspired by their work on the Leon Russell duet album The Union, producer T-Bone Burnett encouraged Elton John to return to making albums like he used to in the old days for 2013's The Diving Board, harking back to the days when he wrote quickly and recorded with little more than a rhythm section. This all sounds like a major shift in aesthetic for John, but Elton has been on a decade-long quest to tap into that old magic, beginning his voyage into the past with 2001's Songs from the West Coast and getting progressively elliptical with each subsequent release. The Diving Board does indeed evoke ghosts of Elton past but it never suggests the hits. It's an album consisting almost entirely of songs that riff on "Sixty Years On" and "Rotten Peaches" -- long, languid ballads or open-ended blues-rockers where atmosphere trumps hooks. Occasionally, Elton musters up elongated melodies that eventually catch hold, but The Diving Board isn't a collection of finely sculpted pop; it's a set of song poems and ballads, all placing emphasis on mood, not immediacy. This is an exceptional idea in theory; in practice it is ever so slightly formless, floating whenever it should be taking root. There are moments where the tempo gets ever so slightly sprightly -- "Take This Dirty Water" has a dirty gospel shuffle reminiscent of a toned-down "Take Me to the Pilot," "The Ballad of Blind Tom" is faithful to the spirit of Tumbleweed Connection, "Mexican Vacation (Kids in the Candlelight)" not only rocks but has a welcome gust of tastelessness -- but that only emphasizes just how ponderous the rest of the record is. There is much that is admirable about The Diving Board -- the feel is spacious and haunting, the ambition is commendable -- but the emphasis on tone over song means it leaves only wistful wisps of melancholia behind with the actual songs seeming like faded, distant memories.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine