The story goes that the impetus for The Union was for John to use his celebrity to restore his all-time musical hero, Leon Russell, to the public eye, but what those noble ambitions rolled into is a full-blown duet album, complete with dueling pianos and trade-offs on vocal and songwriting duty (the latter is also split with Benie Taupin).
John's taking this one seriously, and his ambitions for this to be a monstrously successful album, mostly for Leon's sake haven't been very veiled. His vision of the project extends to his choice of producer; he put in a call to T-Bone Burnett, despite having never worked with the man before, simply out of the hope that this record might blossom into something as high-profile and celebrated as Raising Sand. Burnett's not a bad choice for this rootsy, country-infused, but still very mainstream affair, though I'm inclined to say that, for the next go-around, Joe Henry or Buddy Miller might make for favorable alternatives.
The good news: It isn't as sleepy as Raising Sand. The bad news is that T-Bone is in a bit of a rut as of late, and The Union carries with it all the baggage that a T-Bone production entails in 2010. The edges of this thing are so rounded, the atmosphere so hazy, that nothing here really pops, sonically speaking something that's a little bit of a problem when you come to a rocker like Hey Ahab," which never catches fire the way recent John bangers like Just Like Noah's Ark" did, or when you realize that the blazing inferno of Robert Randolph's steel guitar cameo is somewhat lost in the mix. It's also a rather overlong project 14 songs, which is about two ballads too many though in truth, I'd rather this one be a little on the lengthy side: It's a good omen that this creative rejuvenation, for both Russell and John, isn't a minor or a temporary thing.
And it is make no mistake of this a creative rejuvenation; it's not an all-cylinders-firing masterpiece on the level of, say, a Love & Theft, not as daring as Paul Simon's Surprise or as vital as Neil Young's Le Noise, offering not new contexts so much as reminders of why the old stuff was so good. It is, in other words, very much a wheelhouse album, sounding like the common ground between Russell's 70s albums and John in his country/Western mode, as per Tumbleweed Connection. The distance between those two isn't that far, so the feeling of this record is one of comfort, but not of complacency.
Both men are writing, singing, and playing with vigor. T-Bone's production emphasizes the country leanings with steel guitar and gospel choirs; his obtrusive touch can do nothing to sand down the grit or dampen the warmth that comes from the chemistry between the two musicians, the the simple joy they're obviously finding in playing together, their mutual respect and affection making this feel like a perfectly gracious, generous collaboration. It's a comeback for Russel by simple virtue of the fact that he's making vital music for what will probably be a respectable audience, after literally decades of being lost in the woods. For John, it at least equals, and perhaps slightly bests, his own excellent, albeit minor, comeback album from 2006, The Captain and the Kid.
The record's greatest charms come from how laid-back and low-key it is; the album never calls attention to the fact that it's actually the most varied thing John has been involved with in quite some time, nor does it play up the bluesier aspects of The Best Part of the Day" the way that the more cinematic Tumbleweed may have. Really, that song could almost pass as a ballad from John's more adult contemporary days, its country-ish melody being the thing that saves it and makes it fit here.
The low-intensity vibe of this thing means that some of the best songs take some time to really distinguish themselves I'm thinking, in particular, of the steel-drenched country shuffle Jimmie Rodgers' Dream," the jaunty handclap beat of A Dream Come True," the minor-key, metaphysical blues tune There's No Tomorrow." It also means that some of the most addictive material here is also the least flashy; the two most durable cuts on the album, it seems to me, are a pair of sturdy country-rockers If It Wasn't For Bad" and I Should Have Sent Roses" which impress with their sheer craft, the gentle propulsion and forward momentum implicit to the music and the lyrics.
What else? Neil Young stops by to cameo in Gone to Shiloh," a ghostly Civil War ballad in which he, Russell, and John each take a verse. When Love is Dying" which hits even closer to John's AC days than Best Part of the Day" does is nevertheless winsome for its totally low-key sincerity, and for the nice, natural vocal trade-offs from the two singers. Monkey Suit," drenched in horns, is a welcome chance for John to rock out a bit. And even if it's no Noah's Ark," I do rather like Hey Ahab," its lyrical concerns of obsession and failure sounding like a nice metaphor for the artistic life and the pursuit of the muse good, slightly meta- themes for an album like this.
Other than that, the only direct references to The Union's origins are in Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes," a handsome little ballad on the bluesy tip. John sings it, and its lyric is one of admiration for a man who was once heralded as a visionary, but was all but forgotten while he was still in his prime. As a reverent, affectionate nod to Russell, it's fairly obvious, but no less touching because of it. It's a modest and heartfelt moment, perfectly befitting a record of this sort one that isn't perfect, but is certainly warm, charming, and easy to embrace.