Debut albums are interesting. They can produce one hit wonders, launch long-lasting careers, or be largely forgotten. The later is, of course, what has happened to Elton John's debut Empty Sky. Yes, John would go on to be incredibly successful, but I dare say most people would be unaware of this debut and would likely point to the self-titled Elton John album as his debut. Regardless, if you are reading this then it is not too late to check out Empty Sky and can hear the true origins of one of the greatest musicians in history.
Besides Skyline Pigeon, most people, even casual fans, would not have heard the songs off this album as they seldom appear on John’s live performances or career perspective compilations. It is truly a shame as there is plenty to appreciate here. The album is beautifully recorded and mastered, even though the edition used for this review was the 1995 remaster. We must remember, however, that remaster wasn’t always such a dirty word. It did, initially at least, have noble intentions.
The album artwork is gorgeous and screams of the need to own a copy on vinyl. While it was reissued in September 2017, it is important to note the bonus tracks are not included on the vinyl release. I'm normally a stickler for original track listings, but in this case I feel the bonus tracks add depth to the album and most likely the only reason they were previously omitted was due to vinyl runtime restraints. Fingers crossed there is a download code that will include the bonus tracks, but wouldn’t it be cool if they packaged the original vinyl with a 7 or 10-inch record including those three tracks. Now, that would be a value-added proposition for fans like you and me.
Empty Sky has a great rhythm that sets the tone for the entire album. The instrumental introduction is fantastic and allows the mind to become enveloped in the tempo before John's iconic vocal is introduced. You will be toe tapping and head bopping throughout.
Val-Hala has a very regal sound to it. It is lovely, but there is a little distortion in the recording that I find distracting. I'm not sure if this was intentional, or a result of the recording and mastering techniques of the era. I had considered that it could have been an artefact of the remastering process, but if one is to believe the blurb, this remastered edition used the Sadie Digital System and Prism Super Noise Shaper that is said to only enhanced the recording. Subsequently, my only thought is that it is present on the original, especially as it is also the only song on the album that exhibits the effect. Perhaps it was done with artistic intention.
Western Ford Gateway has an absolutely sensational electric guitar riff! The vocal presentation is reminiscent of John Lennon's Imagine (album) recording style. Of course, Lennon’s album was released well over a decade later, but I find it intriguing to look back on music with present-day thoughts and wonder where the influence originated. When I hear this song I often wonder if Elton John influenced John Lennon, or if Elton took influence from Lennon's recordings with The Beatles. Even if there was no real-world correlation, it is interesting to ponder such blasphemous theories.
Hymn 2000 is an enjoyable song, but I find the flute and other musical elements detract from John's vocal delivery. It simply feels a little too busy, especially when listening on loudspeakers. Headphones, interestingly enough, limit this effect.
Lady What's Tomorrow is a nice song, but it is nothing to write home about. A classic B-side!
Sails has a rhythm rivalling Empty Sky. I love it! When I listen to this song, and so many songs from the album, I can't believe these classics have mostly been omitted from the various live performances and compilations. Granted, when you are as successful as Elton John has been, all songs can't always be revisited, but it would be wonderful to see a little more variety at times.
The Scaffold has a gorgeous tonality and rhythm. It is one of my favourite songs on the album and has an addictive chorus that compels you to sing-a-long. Absolutely Brilliant!
Skyline Pigeon is arguably the most well-known track from John's debut album and was included the exceptional compilation Diamonds (Deluxe CD and streaming editions only). The Piano Version included on Diamonds is the re-recording that was done during the Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player sessions. It certainly has more polish than the original and John's vocals are significantly more prominent, but I do love the rawness of this original recording and if you haven't heard it, I implore you to give it a go. It is more acoustic, by comparison, but thoroughly worthwhile.
Gulliver/It's Hay Chewed (Reprise Version) is an interesting song that closes out the original release. It isn't bad, but the intermingling of songs is somewhat distracting and I feel Skyline Pigeon would have been the perfect song to conclude the album with. That said, the first few minutes of Gulliver/It's Hay Chewed is excellent.
Lady Samantha is a solid bonus track with exceptional musicality. It is a shame it didn't make the core album.
All Across The Havens is most certainly a B-side. Perfectly adequate but I can understand why this song didn't make the initial cut. It has a great rhythm to it, however.
It's Me That You Need has an incredibly gorgeous vocal track. I also love the musical elements and it is yet another track that shows just how successful Elton John was to become.
Just Like Strange Rain isn't bad, but it isn't great either. While I’m glad it’s on the remastered CD/ digital release, it isn't overly compelling and fails to generate the interest I believe is required to listen to the album again. That said, l know how good the rest of the album is and therefore I'm going back for another listen.
Overall, Empty Sky is one Elton John album that you simply must own or have within your streaming music library. It is timeless and will likely always remain that way.
This review is based on the 1995 remastered CD on TIDAL Hi-Fi. While I remain interested in the vinyl reissue, I find the album on TIDAL Hi-Fi is sonically perfect. That said, the collector in me is already wanting to reach out to Piers (mataurecords.com.au) and ask him to order me a copy.
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