Elton John's "Breaking Hearts" and David Bowie's "Tonight" are professional but unadventurous offerings from two of our most persistent pop adventurers. At 37, John and Bowie have nothing to worry about in terms of their place in pop history, so an occasional holding action is not only to be expected but excused. What's ironic is that despite a rock-bottom stylistic disparity -- John the vibrant entertainer, Bowie the sly instigator -- both artists find themselves treading remarkably similar waters.
For John, that's almost understandable. "Breaking Hearts" (Geffen GHS24031) is the little old hitmaker's 26th album, yet its energy is closer to John's earliest work than to his confused and tentative late '70s and early '80s offerings. Fully reunited last year with lyricist Bernie Taupin and secure in the workmanlike cocoon woven by guitarist Davey Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olson, John seems once again assured that his unrepentant Top 40 approach is not only acceptable but necessary. While nobody's about to begrudge John the hits he scattered so brightly through the turgid '70s, there was a period when it was almost declasse' to write songs as blatantly hook-laden and unashamedly emotional as "Sad Songs (Say So Much)" and "Breaking Hearts (Ain't What it Used to Be)."
Last year's jubilant John-Taupin confection, "I'm Still Standing," was both proof against the past and a promise for the future. In it, John (who will perform at the Capital Centre on Wednesday) seemed to come to terms with the idea that he needn't aspire to high art as long as he aspired to pure entertainment, a revelation that was also a validation.
If "Breaking Hearts" is a sort of Elton Lite album -- tasting great even as it's less filling -- it's due to John's return to another old stance, namely, creating melodies that disregard Taupin's often gloomy missives. During his Taupin-less period he frequently found himself melodically locked in by his lyrics, but that's all jettisoned here: "Sad Songs," a paean to the songs that get you though the night because "from the lips of some old singer we share the troubles we already know," bounces, its melody totally at odds with Taupin's ponderous sentimentality.
The same dichotomy affects "Who Wears These Shoes," a settling-up and resolution of broken romance couched in a near jubilant melody (you wonder if Taupin ever gets upset) and "Li'l Frigerator," a bad-woman blues ("got a digital mind and expensive breath") that surrenders to a good-woman beat.
Elsewhere, the distance between mood and music is not so great. In "Slow Down Georgie (She's Poison)," Taupin and John try to warn off a friend ("the reputation of the woman you're dating's about as nasty as the Berlin Wall"). "In Neon" paints a stark portrait of a failed starlet (Taupin and John did it better in "Norma Jean"), while "Passengers" offers a bit of sitar-drenched psychedelia reminiscent of Elton's glitzy cover of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." "Restless" develops in that punchy Stones-like groove that John has explored before, especially in "The Bitch Is Back," but the song's political stance is so vague and undirected that it ends up going nowhere.
It's gratifying to hear John not only in good voice, but in high spirits, surrounded once again by pals from his hey-hey days, confident that his snappy pop can make the airwaves crackle again.
That's not likely to happen with Bowie's new opus, "Tonight" (EMI-America SJ-17138), an unsatisfactory follow-up to last year's surprisingly effective "Let's Dance," where Bowie seemed both open and warm, reflecting his inching away from fashionable artifice and toward substance. "Tonight" offers no new steps forward, merely confirming the normalizing process: Bowie has seldom made two thematically or stylistically consistent albums; one James Osterberg, better known as Iggy Pop and best appreciated as a Major Influence on Bowie Becoming Ziggy. Bowie has said that his Serious Moonlight tour kept him away from writing chores, and in fact, there are only two new solo songs on "Tonight," the rather tepid "Blue Jean" (it makes sense only in its video context) and the ambitious "Loving the Alien."
There's a lot of Pop, as if Bowie had decided to pay homage to Iggy through royalties. Bowie and Iggy cowrote "Tumble and Twirl," an up-tempo idyll about Borneo that emulates the "Let's Dance" single without sustaining its intrigue. And, just as they did with "China Girl" on the previous album, Bowie and Pop revive three mid-'70s collaborations: "Tonight," "Neighborhood Threat" and "Don't Look Down."
"Tonight," from Iggy's "Lust for Life" album, was originally a frantic, disturbing scenario about an impending heroin overdose. This time, it's a tame, reggaefied duo with Tina Turner. And though he's not particularly comfortable with supple rhythms, Bowie goes the reggae route again with "Don't Look Down." He gets some help from producer Hugh Padgham, who's had some Police experience in this area, and winds up with an entrancing tune defined by its delicate, mournful air.
Like his earlier "Pin-Ups," "Tonight" offers Bowie opportunities to do some covers, but he wastes them. His rendition of the Brian Wilson/Beach Boys pathos-laden "God Only Knows" is drenched in string-laden melodrama to no particular effect, while Bowie's version of the Lieber-Stoller "I Keep Forgetting" will be of value only if it sends people scurrying back to the Chuck Jackson original. Despite his "Young Americans" period, Bowie's never been particularly comfortable with soul style, and he ends up sounding like Brian Ferry trying to sound like David Bowie. A weird transmutation.
Then again, Bowie's not often thought of as an interpreter but as a visionary. Unfortunately, his two solo offerings will do little to advance that argument. "Loving the Alien" is an intriguing update of "Ashes to Ashes," itself inspired by "Space Oddity," with Bowie examining (lightly) the ongoing mystery of religion, the confusion of history and the inevitable decay of time. The epic music that surrounds these thinly etched themes is meant to be uplifting but ends up merely stultifying, as if Bowie's grasp exceeds his reach.
"Blue Jean's" chances of becoming a hit single depend entirely on whether and how often MTV and other music video purveyors are willing to play the three-minute video (dull) or the 22-minute mini-drama (clever, fascinating and beautifully directed by Julien Temple, but not good for repeated viewings). The song itself is slight, as if all the energy and imagination had been spent on the video, but pop citizens in the '80s might as well get used to that process.
"Tonight" closes with a Pop/Bowie/Carlos Alomar collaboration, "Dancing With the Big Boys," a horn-powered workout that contains the album's best single line, "where there's trouble, there's poetry." Problem is, there's not enough of either on "Tonight."