Early in the pandemic lockdown, Elton John was perfectly content to watch “Tiger King,” listen to music, play with his sons and learn how to work FaceTime and Zoom.
Sounds like the daily routines of many people in spring 2020.
No mere mortal, he.
“The Lockdown Sessions” (out Friday) is a starry affair previewed this summer with “Cold Heart (Pnau Remix),” his partnership with Dua Lipa that marries “Rocket Man” and “Sacrifice” with a fresh vibe. The hit returned John to the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time in 21 years and cemented his well-known appreciation of contemporary artists.
Many of his younger collaborators, such as Surfaces and Rina Sawayama, became new John colleagues via his Apple Music show, “Rocket Hour.” Recordings for the album transpired remotely via Zoom – a first for the veteran singer/songwriter – or under strict safety regulations, including the artists being separated by glass screens.
The novelty of “The Lockdown Sessions” is undeniable. How can anyone not get a kick out of hearing him romp with Stevie Nicks (“Stolen Car”) or slink around with Gorillaz (“The Pink Phantom”)?
But despite John’s authentic grasp of current music, not every pairing works.
Hearing him wedged between Young Thug and Nicki Minaj on “Always Love You” sounds ripe for a “Saturday Night Live” parody, while British dance floor maestro SG Lewis can only do so much with the reedy “Orbit.”
But highlights abound on John’s creatively assembled collection. Here are a few standout pairings:
Charlie Puth ('After All')
An achingly pretty song that sweeps along with a summery, ’70s soul/pop vibe. The vocal effects on John’s contribution coat his voice with an interesting lilt and soften some of the edges of his sturdy rasp.
Jimmie Allen ('Beauty in the Bones')
Like Kane Brown, Sam Hunt and many other current country singers, Allen’s style can’t be pigeonholed to fiddles and banjos. He and John merge for an adrenaline rush of electronic pop with John’s piano fortifying when necessary.
Brandi Carlile ('Simple Things')
John and Carlile are musical soulmates and their comfort level playing off each other is palpable. John, 74, embraces the wisdom of his age with lyrics such as, “As an old man, I’m a young man, ’cause I’ve not been old for long,” before sharing lessons learned throughout life. A dancing piano melody, pedal steel guitar and flawlessly meshed vocals equate to the album’s standout track.
Years & Years ('It’s a Sin')
A worthy update of the 1987 Pet Shop Boys club hit. The simple piano and vocal arrangement from John and Years & Years (aka British singer Olly Alexander) allows for searing new insight into the lyrics. But then the synth and pulse kick in and Sir Elton blasts into Mirror Ball Land.
Rina Sawayama ('Chosen Family')
The Japanese-British singer resembles Lady Gaga in tone and delivery and she takes the lead on this lovely mid-tempo song about the people we select as our partners in the foxhole. As the pair sings, “We don’t need to be related / We don’t need to share genes or a surname / So what if we don’t look the same, we’ve been going through the same thing,” their message is clear: Family has nothing to do with blood.
Stevie Wonder ('Finish Line')
John teams with his “That’s What Friends Are For” buddy for an uplifting message paired with an easy groove. These titans of music history revel in the big choral action in the background of the song, while Wonder’s distinctive voice and his trademark harmonica make the duet a noteworthy musical footnote.
Glen Campbell ('I’m Not Gonna Miss You')
The late country great recorded this weepie for his final album in 2014, the soundtrack for the documentary “I’ll Be Me.” Campbell’s team reached out to John to see if he would be interested in rerecording it along with Campbell’s vocal and the result is an emotional knockout. “I’m still here, but yet I’m gone / I don’t play guitar or sing my song,” Campbell offers in a weathered voice. It’s both a gentle tribute to Campbell and a knowing nod to John’s own mortality.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Elton John review: 'The Lockdown Sessions' team him with Nicks, Wonder