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Elton John’s Jewel Box — a multi-disc collection curated by the artist himself — is a rare set which provides powerful perspective and context to his work.
In Part One of this series on the eight CD Jewel Box set I explored B-Sides and other rarities from the latter stages of his career (click here in case you missed that). I have also reviewed the early rarities on the vinyl version of the collection (click here to jump to that review).
Overall, this set is beautifully produced. It sounds excellent as CDs go — no harsh edges to the sound and there is remarkable sonic consistency across the different periods of his career (kudos to the mastering engineer). Perhaps most importantly, this set makes me want to revisit some of Elton’s later period albums which I admittedly haven’t spent as much time immersing myself in (I have most on vinyl or CDs). So in that sense alone, I consider Jewel Box to be a genuine success.
In this part of my review we’ll going to look into parts of Sir Elton’s Jewel Box which bookend the set: “deep cuts” and personal favorites referenced in his recent autobiography called “Me.“
The first track on Jewel Box is “Monkey Suit” from Elton’s 2010 collaboration with Leon Russell (called The Union). What is especially fascinating about the song is that it feels like a so-called “classic” period track from the 1970s. This became even more apparent when I heard it followed by “Where To Now Saint Peter?” (from Tumbleweed Connection).
Those two songs alone clued me in that I was in for a special journey, setting a tone for the alternate universe exploration through Elton’s career via songs you may have overlooked. Some of my favorites jumping out from this sequence come from including Peachtree Road (“All The I’m Allowed,” “Freaks In Love”), Blue Moves (“Boogie Pilgrim,” “Chameleon”), Two Low For Zero (“Crystal,” and the title track), The Union (“You’re Never Too Old To Hold Somebody,” “Gone To Shiloh”), Ice On Fire (“Shoot Down The Moon”)
Again, one of the hallmarks of a great compilation is that is makes you want to revisit and explore albums that you might have not given enough mindshare in the past. To that extent, I can’t really give Jewel Box a higher complement as it does just that.
And This Is Me…
While there are some choices I would have expected Elton to have in this final CD in the set — subtitled And This Is Me… music he refers to in his autobiography (which I still need to read) — there are some which I was pleasantly surprised to see listed here.
One of them is perhaps my favorite Elton John song of all time — “All The Nasties,” from Madman Across The Water. The back story on this track (which Elton explains in the liner notes) is not lost on me. This song has fascinated me since I was about 10 or 11 years old and has long been important in my life (Dear Elton, if you are reading this: Yes, I very much noticed what you were singing about… so… thank you!!)
There are so many powerful tracks on And This Is Me… and each one has a special tale to tell: “Empty Sky” (a first great production)… “Lady Samantha” (an early single)… “Border Song” (his first charting single!)… “My Father’s Gun” (Dylan loved the lyrics!)… “Song For Guy” (the gorgeous UK hit which was refused single release in the US!)… “The Last Song” (related to the AIDS crisis, from the film And The Band Played On)… “American Triangle” (about Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder in 1998) and so many others.
Don’t overlook listening to this special collection-within-a-collection as it may be the most important series of songs in the whole set.
The Book of Jewel Box
You might remember earlier that I mentioned how I did not buy the ‘80s box set called To Be Continued… Part of the reason was simply that many boxed sets I’d bought from that period were sort of skimpy disappointing affairs. You got some CDs, a lot of cheesy plastic and usually a lame cardboard box plus if you were lucky some sort of 20 to 30 page booklet.
Jewel Box was worth the wait as it is a far more substantial and high quality production. It revolves around hardbound laminated, graphically arresting book-style package. This is thoughtfully prepared right down to how it was physically crafted, employing a formal “sewn” binding which allows you to open the book flat without worry of it breaking.
This attention to detail was worth pointing out. Kudos to the designers of this collection for creating something genuine and lasting for fans to cherish for years to come — a Jewel Box for sure. Of course, this would all be moot if the contents were weak but there so much thoughtful reflection inside from cover to cover: incredible photos, memorabilia and most importantly Elton’s personal reflections on each of the tracks.
Hardcore fans may have some of these things in their collections, but I suspect that most American fans have not seen many of these international backstage passes, promotional flyers, vintage ads, rare singles and even sketches for some of Elton’s costumes.
And, sure you can go ahead and stream the Jewel Box in its entirety on many of the streaming services including on Tidal and Qobuz. But, I can honestly say that you are missing out on a huge portion of the fun by not having the physical product in hand and being able to read about the music inside.
To that, Elton John’s Jewel Box is an ideal gift idea for the fan on your holiday list or just to treat yourself to something really nice. And something nice is something we can all use as we wrap up 2020 and look ahead to a brighter 2021 ahead.