That title for this review plays off the cover artwork for this 1980 release. With his recording career in a unexpected and doubtful place, Elton John re-emerged once again with a collection of songs that let's his fans know that he can deliver when he needs to. After the stark and moody "A Single Man" and the disco disaster of "Victim of Love", "21 at 33" rightfully puts Elton back in the pop-rock category. It may not hold together all the way through but at least his diversions are minimal and do not way down the entire effort.
Starting with the highly charged rocker, "Chasing The Crown", you know right away he mean business. Effective backing vocals and a great guitar by Richie Zito start the album off with a bang. "Little Jeannie" follows and is simply one of those enduring and memorable ballads Elton has built a successful career upon. It has one of his most unique lyrical hooks ("I want you to be my acrobat"), courtesy of Gary Osbourne, in years. Further, this may be the best John/Taupin song without a Taupin lyric. The way the melody flows and marriage of the lyric to the melody are very reminiscent of anything Elton and Taupin did back in '73.
And speaking of Taupin, this was his much herald return to an Elton John album since 1976's "Blue Moves". Here, he contributes three lyrics: the mentioned above "Chasing the Crown", a cocaine laced "White Lady/White Powder" and "Two Rooms At The End Of The World", which tells the tale of their reunion. Elton, with tongue clearly in cheek, give "White Lady" a melody that is so full of cheery piano fills and backing vocals, that it almost appears to be a parody when contrasted with the lyric about cocaine addiciton. And on "Two Rooms", an overproduced uptempo song that has too strong of a horn arrangement, misses some of the drama and insight into Taupin's story about how they write songs. "Two Rooms" isn't bad, it's just very busy with horns, piano solos, and many backing vocals that keep the listener very busy.
Elsewhere, lyrics are shared with Gary Osbourne, with the exception of "Little Jeannie," turns in more mundane, b-side worthy material (the ill-advised "Dear God", which follows the cocaine song - go figure, and "Take Me Back", a routine country song that feels way out of place among the others). These songs sound like leftovers from "A Single Man". But Tom Robinson provides Elton with lyrics for two pretty ballads:"Sartorial Eloquence" and "Never Gonna Fall In Love Again". This is a relationship that seemed to work nicely and a shame they didn't explore more opportunities in the future (though Robinson did make one last appearance on the next release, "The Fox").
Rounding out the last of the lyrical contributors is "Give Me The Love," which is written by Elton and Judie Ztuke. A jazzy, disco style upbeat number that certainly sounded very 1980 and contemporary when it came out. Not a bad song but again, a little out of place.
Elton produced this release with sound engineer Clive Franks and the results are overwhelming at times. However, this remastered version is very well done and the sound is crisp, clear and solid. It also helped that Elton brought back some of the original band members (drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray) for a few songs - notably the huge hit "Little Jeannie."
"21 At 33" is not his best album but certainly a signal that Elton John was getting serious about his music again. And at that time in his career, it proved he had a ace or two up his sleeve.
Best Tracks: Chasing The Crown, Little Jeannie, Sartorial Eloquence.