Song 168: Elton John, “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” (1972)

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Elton John has so many songs, so many hits, duds, and otherwise, that he has made some of my favorite songs and some of the songs I most despise. On the hate side of the spectrum is the evil monstrosity known as “Crocodile Rock,” a song for whom my hatred is so well-known that my sister requests it at weddings just to make me angry. Oh, “Crocodile Rock.” We will meet someday, and I will maim you and your shrill refrain with no hesitation.

On the other hand, John has made some incredible songs over the years. Two of my favorites are on Honky Chateau: “Rocket Man,” whose chorus is one of the most satisfying that I can think of, and “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” a beautiful song that may just be the best thing Elton John and Bernie Taupin ever did, which, in nearly 50 years of collaboration, is saying something.

John and Taupin pull off a neat trick in simultaneously de- and re-romanticizing New York (and urban life in general). “A rose tree never grows in New York City,” sings John, who sounds heartbroken that the lyrics of Ben E. King’s song about Spanish Harlem “are just pretty words to say.” He then goes on to apply flowery (but not overly flowery) language to everything he sees, from the Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters to the class divide dictating that “rich man can ride, but the hobo, he can drown.” It’s all very forlorn but very sincere, debunking the American dream of “making it” while crediting the things that actually make life worth living: people.

I love the instrumentation on this one, especially the mandolin that comes in and out like an occasional background vocalist. Everything is subdued and just expressive enough, as if John and Taupin composed a gospel number that they were trying hard to restrain. It seems to teeter on the edge of torch song territory, only to build ever so slightly.

Honky Chateau is a funny record, with the beautiful ballads “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” and “Rocket Man” sitting alongside the rambunctious “Honky Cat.” But considering that it was already John’s fifth album, with 25 more to go (and counting), it’s just one part of a remarkable lifelong achievement. Keep going, Elton John. Keep going.

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