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.
In terms of the “white guy behind a piano” singer-songwriters of the 1970s, Billy Joel is The Angry One, Randy Newman is The Funny One, and Elton John is The Romantic. That’s unfair pigeonholing on all three counts—Joel’s prickliness hides a sensitive side, and the humor in Newman’s work is the result of a singular perceptiveness—but I still remember being taken aback the first time I really paid attention to the lyrics of John’s “I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself.” This is Elton John, eulogizer of Marilyn Monroe and Lady Diana? The Lion King guy? Singing a wicked little satirical jab on the same record as “Rocket Man” and “Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters”?
Part of the surprise has to do with the fact that it’s impossible to tell what Elton John is singing in any given song, as the combination of his idiosyncratic enunciation and Bernie Taupin’s garrulousness turns even their biggest hits into treasure troves of misheard lyrics. (For example: My mom loves telling the story of a babysitting job where her musically inclined charge endowed the subject of “Bennie And The Jets” with “electric boobs.”) At least with “I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself,” John and Taupin put the message right there in the title: This is a cheery little ode to tap dancing into your own grave, featuring actual tap dancing.
But the sickest, funniest joke Elton John ever told goes beyond mere juxtaposition. The setup’s in the honky-tonk piano and the fleet feet of “Legs” Larry Smith; the punchline is the slow reveal in Taupin’s lyrics: This isn’t a 20th-century Job decrying the unfairness of life—it’s some moody teen. Suddenly, a dark and dreary statement becomes a lot more relatable, even as it continues to make light of the tragedy at the song’s core. I’m sure a lot of people find “I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself” distasteful, but those same people aren’t acknowledging the true butt of the joke. This isn’t a jangly, toe-tapping number sung at the expense of anyone who’s taken their own life. It’s a message to the many Harold Chasens of the world: There’s more to life beyond the driver’s seat of dad’s car and that Brigitte Bardot poster in your bedroom. Lighten up—take Cold Spring Harbor off the turntable and give the first side of Honky Château a spin. Just make sure to stop before you get to “Rocket Man.”