When Elton John is at his best, as on "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," he makes as good a case as any contemporary songwriter -- including critical favorites like Elvis Costello -- for status as one of the late-20th century's classic pop music composers. A nostalgic song that finds John teaming back up with his longtime collaborator, Bernie Taupin, after a few years' break (on and off), "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" is likely to stand the test of time as a standard.
John is a master of mood; the song is a warm, nostalgic, comforting, and highly emotional bit of melancholy. Reaching the heart-wrenching climax in the song's chorus multiple times -- "Wait on me girl/Cry in the night if it helps" -- the melody alone tugs at the heartstrings. Taupin is in top form here as well, with a lyric that takes its cue from Tin Pan Alley songs of the '40s and '50s, particularly World War II-era songs of separation like "Till Then": "Just stare into space/Picture my face in your hands/Live for each second without hesitation/And never forget I'm your man." Taupin shows an enormous amount of growth from his greener early-'70s days when his ambition often exceeded his ability, resulting in often fumbling, forced verbiage. With lines like, "And while I'm away/Dust out the demons inside/And it won't be long before you and me run/To the place in our hearts where we hide," the lyricist finds compelling and fresh means of expressing a universal emotion.
As with the lyric, the music has more than a tinge of nostalgia, with a '50s-like R&B shuffle, a jazzy piano theme, and an inspired, Toots Thielemans-like harmonica solo from Stevie Wonder. The soaring solo takes the song to new heights, the ache of the sentiment palpable in every note.