‘Revamp’ and ‘Restoration’ Breathe New Life Into the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin

There are few artists today who can be fairly awarded legendary status, whose contributions to the popular songbook are so numerous, and so consistently high-quality, that the breadth and depth of their appeal exemplifies the unifying and inspirational potential of music. Elton John is one of these few — and in case you need a reminder, one has just been issued. John and his songwriting partner of 50 years, Bernie Taupin, had at least one song on the Billboard Top 100 for 31 consecutive years. Take a moment to digest that. John has kept a low profile as of late, but has recently announced that he will embark on a massive, two-year farewell tour. In celebration of his work, several of the biggest names in pop and country music have simultaneously released two tribute albums, “Revamp: The Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin” and “Restoration: The Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin

“Revamp,” gathers motley artists from the full spectrum of pop music to reimagine some of John’s biggest hits in their signature genres. “Bennie and the Jets” is the perfect opener, conceptually. Taupin has described his vision of the titular group as a futuristic rock band. 45 years after the songs’ release, a contemporary cover of this song seems the very realization of this idea. John wrote the music as a homage to glam rock, and having become something of a glam icon in his own right, it’s fitting that “Bennie and the Jets (2018 Version) is a homage to him. P!nk is on vocal duty, alongside Elton John, and P!nk’s performance is stunning. She picks up John’s distinctive inflections, recapturing the spirit of the original, but adding just enough of her own personality to make it her own. Rapper Logic drops a verse on the track, and it seems a bit random as he raps about nonsense, dropping Elton John at the end of his verse, but never saying anything related to the content of the original song. Still, it adds an interesting element — somewhat.

Alessia Cara picks up “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” It’s a faithful rendition, with old school instrumentation. Cara adds her own flourishes, flavoring certain words with the melisma that one would expect from any R&B-associated artist. By the end, she’s gets ostentatious, basking in the spotlight, bellowing with showy histrionics, but she does it all well, and it works. The girliness of her voice gives the song a distinct feel, a refreshing rechanneling.

“Candle In The Wind” finds Ed Sheeran presenting a smooth, mellow reimagination, with acoustic guitar and sparing percussion. He fluctuates his vowel sounds, and it comes across as natural and seamless. The one irritating thing is that Sheeran adds two extra bars to the chorus, to make it fit neatly into standard 4/4 time. This deprives the song of its artful songwriting craft, and egregiously debases it. If Sheeran had been a little more creative, he could have figured out a way to make the original structure fit within his own framework. His choice not to is a lazy act of pandering to simple taste.

Mary J. Blige’s cover of “Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word” sounds exactly like as one would imagine Mary J. Blige covering Elton John. There’s a hip-hop beat. There’s all the drama that Blige once exemplified in her hit, “No More Drama.” One-note syllables are expanded to seven-note ones in typical R&B style. Blige is a master of her craft, and she puts on a top performance. Aside from some rather intrusive backing vocals, her take is a perfect transportation into a new genre.

Q-Tip and Demi Lovato absolutely make “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” their own, transforming “blue-eyed soul” to, well, downright “soul.” There’s pure funk all over, and there’s a loose festivity, and a groovy Marvin Gaye feel. You can hear how much fun Q-Tip and Lovato are having, and it’s a testament to joyful, inspiring capacity of music. Every second is different, yet the upbeat vivacity of the original is captured unadulterated.

Miley Cyrus takes on “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me.” She has picked a song that is big stadium fare, tackling both George Michael and Elton John belting their hearts out at their most epic. She handles it magnificently. From a purely singing standpoint, Cyrus’s cover might be the most impressive. She sounds 100% confident, hits every note perfectly, and soars to heights the match the intensity of the original. Oddly, her cover is also the most faithful, as it sticks to the original, dated instrumentation. There’s no reinvention here, just Miley Cyrus singing — but her performance makes that good enough.  

Lady Gaga takes on what many would consider one of John’s most poignant works, “Your Song.” John gets much of his characteristic vocal style from his peculiar position of being an Englishman singing the way he imagines Americans sound. Gaga seems to be reversing this, affecting an odd pronunciation when she sings words like, “I,” and “my.” Once the drums kick in, however, she totally goes to town, and stretches the songs to gargantuan proportions. Gaga retrofits the song for her expanded vocal range, literally “revamping” it, justifying the albums title. The way she belts with such effortless command is truly stunning, and by the end of the song, you’ve got to tip your hat to her.  

Many will take great pleasure in seeing such a diverse, star-studded roster take on John’s songs on “Revamp.” Some, however, might find the experience of leaping from hip-hop to folk to rock rather maddening. For those, there is a sister album, “Restoration,” which devotes itself to a single genre, allowing for a more comfortably consistent listen. The genre of choice is country, which might come as a surprise to many, as the mention of Elton John typically conjures pop and rock. A single listen to the album, however, should swiftly relieve you of any confusion. Bernie Taupin is heavily influenced by country songwriting. In fact, it was upon hearing Marty Robbins, as a child, that he decided to become a songwriter. Elton John’s 1970 album, “Tumbleweed Collection,” was essentially a country album, and his entire catalogue is peppered with country-influenced songs. “Restoration” mines John’s oeuvre for these songs, and realizes them in full heartland form.

Consider Maren Morris’s cover of “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.” It’s no dramatic reimagining, just Morris singing the tune with an accent ever so slightly more western than John’s. She embellishes a note here and there, pulling it with the free flow of blues-derived melody — but it’s blues by way of country, toned down and spread out. Tremolo guitar chords, and bends are added to the mix, and suddenly, the song is pure country. Unlike the lunacy that is Logic’s rap verse on “Revamp,” Morris sounds natural in her environment. The reason is that the song she sings was a country song to begin with; it was merely under the radar.

Chris Stapleton is the only artist who Elton John personally asked to take part in “Restoration.” John specifically requested that Stapleton cover “I Want Love,” and you can see why. Stapleton sounds so confident and comfortable churning out the number that the song might has well have been written for him. The instrumentation is pretty faithful to the original, and Stapleton runs through the melodies without tampering. What makes him shine is how he makes the vocals bigger and bolder than those of the original. There’s all the passion of Johns singing, but while John sang over the piano, Stapleton sings over the stage, projecting to the back of  the arena. Rasp and immediacy are replaced by polish and magnitude.

“Roy Rogers,” is a song that finds Elton John at his most country, and would fit on this album without any revisioning. Yet, Kacey Musgraves chooses to reinvent it, and manages to still capture the spirit of the original, although with a markedly different sensibility. Whereas the original song drags wearily, and conjures a worn and tortured soul, Musgraves’s cover is tight, centered, and relatively upbeat. Every sound is clear and crisp, pointed and pristine. The sweetness and fluidity of Musgrave’s voice lift some of the weight, and imbue the track with a pleasant breeziness., making the song take on a fresh new character.

Rhonda Vincent and Dolly Parton really go to town — or perhaps, rather, away from town, — on “Please,” making for one of the album’s most memorable moments. Their rendition takes a delightfully indulgent, bluegrass approach. It’s packed with busy banjo and fiddle musings, making for an invigorating, dynamic arrangement.  It harnesses the upbeat punchiness of the original, but reshapes and recolors it, with plenty whimsy and flair.

As one might expect from a collaboration between two names so big in their genre, “Please” is doubly country. Such is also the case with “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore” bringing together Emmylou Harris and Rosanne Cash. John’s song had vaguely country chord progression, and melancholy storyline lyrics, but the cover takes the reins and runs free, far into the west. The arrangement is expanded for a bigger backing band, and there’s a twang to every instrument. Their treatment turns down some of the original’s strained drama for a mellow, melodious, honey-soaked mood.

In both “Please” and “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore,” the singers alternate on vocal duties. Hearing the same melodies channeled in two different voices, flavored by two different sets of idiosyncrasies, makes for an engaging novelty. What really stand out in both songs, however, are the choruses, which add harmonies to John’s original lines, and feature the two singers together. Any fans of Vincent, Parton, Cash, or Harris will be in for a treat with these collaborations.  

John has commented, “Willie Nelson covering one of my songs is a dream come true,” and Nelson’s cover of “Border Song” might be the most thrilling moment on “Restoration.” Nelson takes a standard, steady, piano-and-voice tune, disassembles it and creates something exciting and fresh. His version is loose, deconstructed, and abstracted. The arrangement is spacious, and the instruments meander with almost a free jazz whimsicality. There’s some brilliant guitar playing, with gritty tones, fluid, bending figures, and reverberating chord stabs. Nelson takes liberties with the melodies, adding plenty vibrato to ringing notes. His signature, crackly croon gives the song a new, damaged earnestness, bringing out the plight of the lyrics.

The idea of assembling various artists to create original renditions of treasured songs is a feat of delusional ambition. So, naturally, most cover albums are lacking. Granted, there will always be fans that cling to the soundtracks of their lives so obsessively that any deviation from the encompassing tracks will trigger resentment. But if your nostalgic strings are tightly less wound, and you can suspend your sense of attachment enough to entertain divergent reimaginings of favorite songs, you will likely be pleased with “Revamp” and “Restoration.” The two records comprise a colorful, creative collection of covers that breathe new life into classic songs.

Revamp: The Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin” and “Restoration: The Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin” are available April 6 on Apple Music.