It was designed to be a blockbuster and it was. Prior to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John had hits -- his second album, Elton John, went Top Ten in the U.S. and U.K., and he had smash singles in "Crocodile Rock" and "Daniel" -- but this 1973 album was a statement of purpose spilling over two LPs, which was all the better to showcase every element of John's spangled personality. Opening with the 11-minute melodramatic exercise "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" -- as prog as Elton ever got -- Goodbye Yellow Brick Road immediately embraces excess but also tunefulness, as John immediately switches over to "Candle in the Wind" and "Bennie & the Jets," two songs that form the core of his canon and that go a long way toward explaining the overstuffed appeal of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. This was truly the debut of Elton John the entertainer, the pro who knows how to satisfy every segment of his audience, and this eagerness to please means the record is giddy but also overwhelming, a rush of too much muchness. Still, taken a side at a time, or even a song a time, it is a thing of wonder, serving up such perfectly sculpted pop songs as "Grey Seal," full-bore rockers as "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" and "Your Sister Can't Twist (But She Can Rock & Roll)," cinematic ballads like "I've Seen That Movie Too," throwbacks to the dusty conceptual sweep of Tumbleweed Connection in the form of "The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-34)," and preposterous glam novelties like "Jamaica Jerk-Off." This touched on everything John did before and suggested ways he'd move in the near future, and that sprawl is always messy but usually delightful, a testament to Elton's '70s power as a star and a musician.
The 40th Anniversary edition of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road expands the album to a whopping five discs. The first CD is devoted to the album itself, while the second combines nine covers by contemporary acts with B-sides, outtakes, and other stray tracks from the mid-'70s; the third and fourth discs showcase an excellent live show from 1973 at Hammersmith, leaving the DVD to present the 1973 documentary Elton John & Bernie Taupin Say Goodbye to Norma Jean and Other Things. The covers have nothing compelling but are usually pleasant, with the highlights being Band Perry's insistent read of "Grey Seal," John Grant's contemplative "Sweet Painted Lady," Imelda May's swinging "Your Sister Can't Twist," Fall Out Boy's balls-out "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," and Zac Brown Band's "Harmony," which keeps the song rooted in the '70s. The bonus tracks are a weird batch, containing some singles that popped up on the '90s Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player expansion and "Philadelphia Freedom," a non-LP 1975 hit that has nothing to do with Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but they're all good: "Whenever You're Ready (We'll Go Steady Again)" and "Screw You (Young Man's Blues)" are hard, humorous rockers and "Step into Christmas"/"Ho! Ho! Ho! (Who'd Be a Turkey for Christmas)" is one of the great '70s rock Christmas singles, with the flip being one of the rare songs from a superstar that sounds designed for Dr. Demento. The live show is energetic and deep, illustrating how strong John's catalog already was and how good he was in front of an audience. There's not a bad note of music here, and it's worthwhile for the superfans.