In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, in celebration of the newly remastered Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, we’re picking our favorite Elton John songs.
As Andrea touched on in her entry, the thing that has always drawn me to Elton John is the fragility lurking behind the flash—the hint of the slightly awkward man who covers his vulnerability with outsized attitude, and his sad eyes with star-shaped glasses. I’m more into John’s maudlin songs that strip away the goofball panache, like a talented pianist shedding his Donald Duck costume. And it doesn’t get more maudlin or stripped-away than “Someone’s Final Song,” off John’s relentlessly mopey 1976 album, Blue Moves.
Released after the back-to-back No. 1 debuts of Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy and Rock Of The Westies, at a time when Elton John was one of the biggest musicians on the planet, Blue Moves also marked his personal lowest. His ongoing struggles with depression and substance abuse had come to a head the year before, when he’d attempted suicide by swallowing 60 Valium during what was deemed “Elton John Week” in Los Angeles, claiming he was overcome by the attention and pressures of fame.
It wasn’t the first time John had come close to doing himself in—nor was “Someone’s Final Song” the first time he’d written about it. As Erik noted yesterday, on 1972’s “I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself,” he played suicide for laughs, imagining the melodramatic declaration of a moody teen as a razzmatazz vaudeville number. And on Captain Fantastic’s far more personal “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” he reflected on the time he’d considered offing himself rather than commit to an early marriage, turning those emotions into an inspiring song of gratitude for the friends who pulled him through.
But “Someone’s Final Song” was the first time he sounded like he meant it. Built delicately around spare, evocative lyrics from Bernie Taupin—who was enduring his own dark days, wrestling with a troubled marriage—it finds John layering soft chords of electric piano, synth, and organ, the spaces between them echoing the loneliness of the songwriter as he sings his goodbye to some departed lover. Its opening couplet—“He died when the house was empty / When the maid had gone”—is a short story unto itself, saying everything about its subject (his wealth, the hole it can’t fill) and where he’s headed, even before he declares, “I can’t stand to go on living life this way.”
As the song winds its way to a close, it’s backed by a haunting, multi-track chorus of John’s own voice, like a heavenly manifestation of all the self-pitying thoughts in his head. And still, at the moment of no return on this, his last and most self-centered act, he decides he wouldn’t have changed a thing. Indeed, the songwriter’s only demonstration of remorse is wondering how the listener will take the news.
When he wrote “Someone’s Final Song,” John was himself coming to grips with his inability to go on living as he had—subsumed entirely by his stage persona, and unsure of who he was offstage. Had he not persevered through his various identity crises, and overcome his own self-admitted, dramatic tendencies toward acting out about them, there’s every chance “Someone’s Final Song” could have become the epitaph for his own career. (As it was, it precipitated a long retirement from performing, a break from Taupin, and a disco album—a drawn-out suicide of its own sort.) But even outside the context of Elton John’s own story, “Someone’s Final Song” should resonate with anyone who’s reached their lowest ebb, and who finds a certain tragic beauty in wallowing in it.