NPR logo First Listen: Elton John And Leon Russell, 'The Union'

First Listen: Elton John And Leon Russell, 'The Union'

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Elton John and Leon Russell. courtesy of the artists hide caption

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courtesy of the artists

Elton John has done reverence and irreverence, decadence and schmaltz. But he wears elegance especially well in The Union, his new, album-length collaboration with the man he calls his idol: 68-year-old fellow singer-pianist Leon Russell. Often playing pianos simultaneously, John and Russell team up seamlessly on The Union, with the aid of guests such as Neil Young, Brian Wilson and Booker T. Jones, not to mention songwriter Bernie Taupin and the producer synonymous with pedigreed collaborations of this nature, T-Bone Burnett.

Alternately rollicking ("Hey Ahab") and reflective ("The Hands of Angels," which alludes to Russell's frail health), The Union is no mere nostalgia trip: Among other things, it's John's clearly sincere attempt to return his hero to a spotlight Russell hasn't occupied in more than three decades. John used to open for Russell in concert, but this isn't just overdue payback, either; both men seem invigorated here, with Russell sounding lively (he underwent brain surgery mere weeks before The Union was recorded, but you wouldn't know it) and John atoning for many recent excursions into watery soft-pop balladry. Rough-around-the-edges collaboration suits both men just fine.