Are you kidding? You’ve placed Tumbleweed Connection above Armed Forces and I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight? You’d take Tumbleweed Connection rather than Elton’s own Caribou or Don’t Shoot Me? Who loves this album? None of its songs are on Elton’s Greatest Hits (#138 on the Rolling Stone 500), and none of them get played on classic rock stations. Somebody somewhere must have strong feelings about this album, though, and had I owned it at a more impressionable age (I picked it up in my twenties), I can imagine it would be dearer to me than it actually is. I love Elton John more than you do, but even I don’t think this a terribly successful album.
At what is Tumbleweed Connection trying to succeed? It seems to be a loose “concept album,” the thematic thread being westerns or perhaps the Confederacy. Various phrases evoke a nineteenth-century American setting: “chain gang,” “kin,” “Deacon Lee,” “river boat,” “New Orleans,” “Yankee,” “cornfield,” “East Virginia,” “stagecoach.” The shadow of the Band looms large. “Country Comforts” (singled out by some as the album’s standout song) revisits and sentimentalizes the uneasy small-town encounters of “The Weight.” Crazy Chester has turned into Old Clay, and “The Weight”’s alienation and sense of burden have turned into an uncomplicated yearning for “any truck that’s going home.” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” gets rewritten as “My Father’s Gun,” and a line from “Across the Great Divide” (“bring your children down to the riverside”) resurfaces almost verbatim in “Burn Down the Mission.”
There is so much of this that one is tempted to suspect parody. Perhaps Tumbleweed Connection, released in October of 1970, was a satiric spoof of recent back-to-the-country albums like The Band (September, 1969), CCR’s Willie and the Poor Boys (November, 1969), CSNY’s Déjà Vu (March, 1970), and the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead (June, 1970). The cover art suggests this possibility. In sepia tones it depicts Elton on the cover (and Bernie Taupin, lyricist, on the back) waiting at a deserted train station that seems to possess that “old-fashioned feeling” he sings about in “Country Comforts.” Looking closer, however, we see that the old-timey placards on the walls of the station advertise British products: Cadbury’s chocolates, Mazawattee Tea, Huntley & Palmer’s Ginger Nuts. Perhaps, then, we will be getting a deliberately British and ironic take on Americana, as we would the following year with The Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies (1971)?
No, that’s not what’s happening here. After the weak drug pun of the title (weed connection), there is not a joke in sight. It is the self-seriousness of Tumbleweed Connection (I keep wanting to call it Tumbleweed Junction) that most clearly distinguishes it from the effervescent work Elton would soon produce. Compare the earnestness of “Talking Old Soldiers,” a dramatic monologue in which “old mad Joe” shares his tragic, drunken wisdom to another fellow in the saloon, to Don’t Shoot Me’s satiric “Texan Love Song,” in which a redneck rails at the hippies with their “communistic politics and them negro blues.” It’s easy to blame the somber tone on Bernie Taupin, but it’s also true that Elton had not yet learned to imbue Taupin’s more soppy and sentimental lyrics with his own campy sensibility. He also had not yet assembled the crack band of his 1972-1975 heyday: Davey Johnstone on guitar, Dee Murray on bass, Nigel Olsson on drums. On “Amoreena,” where three quarters of that lineup is in place, things rock much more persuasively. Much of Tumbleweed Connection now sounds overproduced, however, burdened by lugubrious strings, cumbersome background singers (couldn’t they have found something better to do with Dusty Springfield?) and even an occasional oboe.
Still, this is Elton approaching his prime and therefore not to be sniffed at. Along with “Amoreena,” the best cut on the album is “Burn Down the Mission,” which closes side two. The last-resort agricultural incendiarism of this number again echoes the Band (“King Harvest Has Surely Come”) and CCR (“Effigy”), but the music is wholly original and unexpected. Bassist Herbie Flowers (he of “Walk on the Wild Side”) plays on this track and commands attention. Drummer Barry Morgan contributes stirring fills on the chorus and fuels a couple of manic interludes between verses. Most of all, Elton has given the lyrics a complicated, florid musical structure that they hardly ask for. The song opens with Elton’s solo piano moving (twice) from G major to E minor to an unexpected Bb major. The verse repeats this trajectory, then leading us through Eb major and eventually back to G. Next comes what appears at first to be the chorus (“Bring your family down to the riverside”), which follows a well-worn harmonic course: F major, C major and back to G major. That section ends with the return of that odd Bb major chord, on which we linger for a couple of measures, until we reach the actual chorus and are sent soaring with a glorious and unexpected Db major chord (“Burn down the mission!”). Db major is as far as you can get harmonically from G major, but the song makes it feel as joyous and liberating and necessary and inevitable as an act of arson. Nothing on the album is more satisfying that moment, and nothing could be.