Elton John — Caribou

Just to drive home a point about his incredibly prolific early output — Elton John released studio albums in June 1969, April 1970, October 1970, March 1971, November 1971, May 1972, January 1973, October 1973 (a double album), and June 1974, when he released this record, “Caribou.” That was a rate that, for better or worse, wasn’t necessarily uncommon then for successful artists – though I’d say that few could really sustain quality across that much music created that quickly. And when he got to “Caribou,” maybe the limit was reached.

Caribou front cover
The front cover of Caribou – to my tastes, no more inspired than what was inside.

This came out at a seriously important time in this Elton John fan’s life. Eighth grade, which was just a horrible experience, was over, and I was determined that ninth grade would be entirely different (I was not wrong). And, the very month that this record was released, I got my own bedroom at last . . . and possession of the record player.

As I mentioned last time, for the first 10 or 11 years of my life, we rented the downstairs of a two-family house. Then my parents bought the house and set about renovating the upstairs. Slowly. Stripping it back to the studs, working on it nights and weekends with as little cash as one could possibly put into such an enterprise, it took a bit more than three years to get the upstairs done and ready to live in. In all that time, I was sharing a bedroom with a much younger sibling, and my only access to a record player was in a central room that connected to literally every other room in the house, meaning anyone going anywhere had to walk through it, meaning there was zero privacy, and if anyone was asleep or basically doing anything else at all, I couldn’t really play my records.

Given that my parents had, at absolute most, 10 records, it seems odd that we had a record player console at all. It was a small one, streamlined, not like the behemoths of the sixties. It was meant to sit across a tabletop or credenza or something like that. We only had it because my father was absolutely terrible at giving gifts. On several occasions, he picked out a gift for my mother that was so far from anything she would have wanted that it was embarrassing, downright painful, to watch. This wasn’t quite that, in that it made sense that a household in the sixties would have a stereo console, even a household that had put off having a telephone for as long as was possible, and that never had a color TV until after I had moved out. (Full disclosure: I didn’t own a color TV until I was something like 32, and it was inherited. It was just not a priority at the time.) If the stereo was ever used by my mother, it was to play the radio, very low, on WROW, the “beautiful music” station. But that wasn’t often. While it came to be that the TV was rarely turned off (not watched, mind you, just always on), music was not a sound in our house.

So in that summer of 1974, the upstairs renovations were done and I was able to move into my room. It was the fifth anniversary of the moon landing, exactly, and while my furniture had not yet been moved upstairs, I was able to have a friend come and sleep over in my new private bedroom, and we were able to bring the record player upstairs, into my room, and play records like normal teenage boys. And, because the record player was never used by anyone else, it just stayed there. It was mine. And from that point on, my record collecting really took off — the vast majority of my purchases were still singles, but I had more money coming in from occasional jobs, and could spend a bit more on albums too. The next four years would be spent in that bedroom, listening to records, watching bad movies on late-night weekend TV (once I was given a hand-me-down TV set from the early ’60s), having long talks on the telephone that barely reached Into my room, and turning into whoever it was that left the house for college.

Caribou back cover
Caribou back cover

“Caribou” was part of those first weeks in my new bedroom; it came out just days after I moved in, but I’m not certain just when I got it. Like a lot of my albums in those days, it probably came from the Two Guys Department Store’s seemingly vast record department, where I wasted hours and hours pawing through records I would never buy and puzzling over how anyone managing a record department could think that 10cc’s “The Original Soundtrack” belonged in the soundtrack section.

For me as an Elton John fan, “Caribou” was kinda the quick end, the one that said “that’s enough.” It isn’t bad, by any means, but it’s nowhere near as good as the previous two, “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” It opens with “The Bitch is Back, “ a song I don’t love that relies on a word that I didn’t like then and don’t like now. The next three songs, “Pinky,” “Grimsby,” and “Dixie Lily,” could have been on any earlier album but would have been the weakest tracks on any of them. They’re pretty, they’re fine, but they’re not great. “Solar Prestige a Gammon” is a bit of “Savoy Truffle” type nonsense, but “You’re So Static” is a solid rocker, although it feels longer than its 4:52. The second side doesn’t get a lot better. It includes the epic “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” which absolutely defined that summer as a single. The album closes with a long, oppressively sad song about a mass murderer, tragically ahead of the curve and hard to listen to even then.

I liked this album at the time, never in any way like the two previous albums, but I liked it nonetheless. The songs are fine, but only “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” reaches greatness. But the next year, when “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” came out, I decided I had reached the end of my fandom for Elton’s new music. I bought the big single, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (not a hugely different song from “Don’t Let the Sun…”), and loved it, but something about the album title and cover and lack of other hits just caused me to spend my musical dollar elsewhere. Sometimes it’s okay to just move on.

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